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Venezuela produces some of the world's best cacao — so why doesn't it make chocolate?
RIO CARIBE, Venezuela — Luis Carvajal cracks open a cacao pod and offers one of its sticky white seeds to suck on.
“Can you taste how sweet it is?” he asked. “This is Venezuelan cacao. It’s the best in the world.”
Like many in this remote corner of northeastern Venezuela, Carvajal makes his living from cacao. His family has produced the raw ingredient for chocolate for more than 10 generations. Today, he guides visitors around the plantation belonging to Chocolates Paria, one of the few chocolate factories in this oil-producing country.
But despite sitting on an invaluable commodity, Venezuela has struggled to stamp its identity on the industry where the real money lies: chocolate.
“We need to change what's happened in the past which is that other countries take our cacao seeds, process them abroad and sell it here,” said Juana Francisca Rodriguez, a cacao specialist at the Ministry for Science, Technology and Medium-Sized Industries. “How much does a chocolate bar cost here? It's very expensive. It shouldn't be like that.”
In the 19th century, cacao was one of Venezuela’s main products. But with the discovery of oil in the early 20th century, like many other agricultural commodities, over the years it has dwindled in importance for Venezuelan governments.
Several stories exist about the origins of cacao but Venezuelans prefer the version that it originated in the area south of Lake Maracaibo and was distributed by pre-Columbian traders across Latin America up to Mexico where the Spanish conquistadors discovered it and took it back to Europe. There are three main types of cacao: The Forastero strain originated in the Amazon area of South America but can now be found in many parts of the world, including West Africa. It is known for its bitter taste and considered to lack the finesse of other types. It accounts for between 80 and 90 percent of worldwide production. Criollo (or native) cacao grows in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala. It is characterized by its powerful yet subtle aroma and makes up between 5 and 8 percent of global production. The Trinitario strand is a mixture of Forastero and Criollo and originated in Trinidad and Tobago.
All three types grow in Venezuela but it is the Criollo that is lauded at the top end of the chocolate industry. Award-winning Italian and French luxury chocolate makers such as Amadei and Valrhona all swear by it — and even fight over it: Amadei recently poached Valrhona's cacao supply in the central coastal village of Chuao.
But while Venezuela’s cacao is highly regarded all over the world, why does so little of the finished product — the chocolate — come from Venezuela?
“Almost all Venezuelan cacao is exported,” explained Alida Quintero, founder of Chocolates Paria, who says that, like with other private industries, the government gives few incentives for small producers to enter the export business.
“When we started producing chocolate here we were the crazy ones because we've always been cacao producers not chocolate producers. But we insisted and now we produce a chocolate that stands up — it's good quality.”
You don’t get much more homegrown than Chocolates Paria. Its factory near the town of Rio Caribe is a small outbuilding in a former hacienda that now acts as a museum. Surrounded by imposing bukare trees that shade the cacao shrubs from the tropical sun, the factory employs just 10 women to turn the cacao into organic chocolate.