Extract from Part Ten: Sweet
Criollo Cacao – Cumanacoa, Venezuela
In the spring of 2017, I travelled to Venezuela on a near-empty plane (most other people were attempting to make the journey in the opposite direction). There were protests on the streets, little food in the supermarkets and the city was being described as one of the world’s murder hotspots. The economic crisis was pushing the country to near collapse. I was here to meet with an inspirational chef and chocolate-maker, Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe, who believed Venezuela’s rare and prized cacao, criollo provided one answer to the crisis. It was time, she believed, to remember how important cacao had been – and could be again.
She had grown up in a family of cooks and trained as a chef, but when the economic crisis hit, she had been forced to close her restaurants. This was when she started to make chocolate. For all of its cacao history, Venezuela exported the best cacao beans in the world for others – mostly Europeans – to turn into bars and confectionery and so reap most of the economic benefits. Di Giacobbe began experimenting, designing a DIY chocolate operation with borrowed equipment and the fridge from her home. In search of the best cacao, she took to the road and travelled thousands of miles, seeking out the few farmers left growing the highest-quality native criollo, learning how they fermented and dried their seeds to achieve the best flavours.
She sold the bars she made in small quantities, mostly in Caracas, but she managed to smuggle some out of the country wrapped inside clothes in suitcases. This way the world started to learn about her work and the rare chocolate she was making. But instead of just focusing on her own business, Di Giacobbe started to encourage other Venezuelans to join in her mission. Her little factory became a training centre where women from across the country could learn how to make chocolate: roast beans, winnow them into broken ‘nibs’, grind them down, ‘conch’ them into a smooth paste and temper them into shiny bars of chocolate. Plenty were interested; many had lost jobs and, too often, so had their husbands. Revitalised by their new skills, the women fanned out to other communities, teaching more women what they’d learned.
Word spread, and by the time I met Di Giacobbe in 2017, 8,000 chocolate makers, most working from home, had joined the network. That year she was given the prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize, awarded to chefs making a wider social impact through food. ‘She is affecting every aspect of cacao and chocolate in Venezuela,’ said one of the judges, the food writer Harold McGee. ‘By helping farmers tend their trees, improve the way they process the beans, Di Giacobbe has given communities a chance to benefit from the chocolate.’ The movement was a radical one, not only because it was launched during a crisis, but also because the transformation of cacao into chocolate has usually rested in the hands of large corporations. Di Giacobbe’s work has continued through the worst of the economic crisis and the years of food shortages. When finding sugar, a basic ingredient for the bars, became a challenge (with even Coca-Cola’s factories in Venezuela struggling to get enough of it) Di Giacobbe’s network of chocolate makers created an alternative supply chain, sharing what they had.
Sitting inside the theatre in Caracas, a new band of recruits were listening to this story, absorbing every detail of how they too could start making chocolate in their communities, setting up their own businesses, taking criollo cacao from bean to bar. This was a rare chance to regain some independence and help bring more of Venezuela’s cacao farms back into production. Making a chocolate bar might not at first seem like a life-changing act, but hearing Di Giacobbe describe it, it definitely is. ‘Cacao gives us a chance to make a new country with a new economy, and to win back some dignity,’ she said.
I spoke to one of the hundreds of Venezuelan women who had already followed Di Giacobbe’s vision and was making chocolate. ‘We can forget our problems for a little while and work,’ she told me. ‘Cacao is something real, we can touch, taste and smell it. This was not the case with oil.’ If Di Giacobbe does succeed in helping to change her country for the better through chocolate, it will be a case of history repeating itself. Venezuelan cacao has been a revolutionary food before.