BEAN TO BAR
Output of 16,000 tonnes per year is less than 1 percent of the global total, and less than 10 percent of the production of regional heavyweights Brazil and Ecuador.
Many gourmet bars made in the United States now prominently advertise the use of Venezuelan cocoa but generally mix in other less-desirable cocoas. Bars made in Venezuela, in contrast, are made with 100 percent local cocoa.
This gives the new Venezuelan chocolatiers a leg up as they tap into the global ‘bean-to-bar‘ movement, in which chocolate makers oversee the entire process of turning cocoa fruit into sellable treats.
On the second floor of an old mansion in Caracas, economist and chef Giovanni Conversi has been making specialty chocolate for two years under the name Mantuano.
Sprinkled with sea salt or aromatic fruits from the Amazon, the chocolate bars are a hit in London, Miami and Panama City in specialty chocolate stores or shops that specialize in Latin American food.
He and four assistants produce 9,000 bars a month in Caracas. He has opened a factory in Argentina that buys cocoa from small-scale producers like Yoffre Echarri, who two decades ago inherited his grandfather‘s plantation in the beach town of Caruao.
He opens the fruit to remove the beans and the accompanying sweet white pulp, which has a strong aroma of tropical fruit and then ferments the mixture in plastic bags buried underground.
That process retains more aroma than the traditional method of fermenting in wooden boxes.
He sells the beans to Venezuelan chocolatiers for less than $1 per kilo, about half the international price.
“Clients can’t get enough. Those who three months ago were asking for five kilos now call for 50,” said Echarri.
Many small chocolatiers only manage to get products to foreign markets by carrying them in suitcases on commercial flights, though well-established brands such as El Rey have formal export operations to the United States and Europe.
In Japan, El Rey is represented by the food division Japanese trading house Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Still, some 1,700 people have recently studied artisanal chocolate at the Simon Bolivar University.
“Everyone wants to give it a shot,” said Rosa Spinosa, the head of the program created two years ago.
($1 = 0.8363 euros)
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Christian Plumb and Lisa Shumaker)