As a certified chocoholic I’d always had visions of what staying on a Venezuelan cocoa plantation might be like. A Bridget Jones style indulgence, perhaps, of fresh-from-the-pod chocolate and South American sunshine. I pictured waking to a frothy cup of cocoa, photographing lush fields of flowering pods, and chomping through bullion sized bars of chocolate.
But sucking on raw cocoa beans, in the middle of South American jungle had not featured in this wishful prescience. In fact, my first trek into cocoa-dense vegetation seemed to have more affinity with Indiana Jones than Bridget. It transpires that unlike coffee or tea, cocoa pods cannot be farmed in open fields, and will only grow sheltered within dense thickets of jungle. The best way to cultivate this environment, quite simply, is to use the real thing.
“The cocoa plantation has been described as ‘green anarchy,’” explains Billy Esser, the plantation owner, who has just cracked open a fresh pod, and scooped out the beans for me to taste. “The trees grow where they want to grow, and the pickers remember where each tree is when it’s time to harvest.”
In terms of cocoa production, Venezuela can lay claim to some impressive heritage. The country has grown, harvested, and eaten chocolate since the Aztecs, farming cacao Criollo — the world’s purest strain of cocoa. And if Venezuela is Paradise, then the cocoa plantation where I’m happily ensconced must be where chocoholics go to die.
Hacienda Bukare is the home and chocolate farm of Billy Esser; a local who opens a few rooms to guests and tourists. And Bukare is situated on the Paria Peninsula; otherwise known as the “chocolate coast” of South America. Shaped like a finger, pointing north from Venezuela, this slim stretch of land is banked from coast to coast with cocoa trees, peeking from the flanks of jungle. Particularly fecund areas for cocoa are staked out for production purposes, with land passed from father to son.
In Billy’s particular patch of towering vegetation, evidence of human production methods are apparent almost immediately. Cocoa pods pile up against the buttress roots of jungle trees, and stacks of banana leaves lay waiting to transport the dried beans.
The Making of Chocolate, From Bitter to Sweet
“When the cacao is ready, he is a dark red color,” explains Billy, who holds an unripe yellow pod by way of example. “We take the pods which are ripe, and stack them by the trees. We cut them open, and pile the insides on the banana leaf. Then, we leave for the sun to dry the bean.”
Fresh from the pod, cocoa beans are coated in a sweet, creamy substance, tasting similar to mango. But the actual beans are bitter at this stage, and undergo a lengthy process of drying and fermentation before they can be used for chocolate.
The cocoa trees themselves are small and ordinary looking, excepting the vivid purple-red pods which seem to have sprung fully-formed from the slender trunks. Whilst criollo cacao is usually too delicate to grow in abundance, here it is so endemic as to grow in backyards, and families sell their diminutive cocoa crops to local farmers.
Cocao Criollo Country
Driving through the region, we pass impromptu villages of tin shacks with home-made signage for “Cocao Criollo” every few meters. The green and red symbol of Criollo leaf and pod is displayed like a jaunty tattoo, on shops and buildings.
A small barn, barely large enough to keep a few horses, proudly brands itself a “cocoa factory,” with the characteristic leaf and pod painted brightly on the exterior wall. From the vantage point of a fast-moving jeep, the dirt-track is suddenly paved with a brick-red swathe of cocoa beans — part of the “factory” production technique.
At the roadside two boys nonchalantly work the beans back and forth, allowing them maximum exposure to the sun. In fact, it seems the entire economical psyche of this small region is bound-up in the illustrious lure of cocoa. Almost every other home has a fistful of beans drying on the front-porch, and shops stack dark bullion-slabs of chocolate alongside maize, potato-chips, and sticky Coca Cola.
Hacienda Bukare is by no means the largest plantation on the peninsula, but Billy’s entrepreneurial talents have added a small factory to the successful guestrooms and tours. The business employs a handful of locals to process the harvested beans, and transform them into a variety of chocolate products, with the entire Esser family also involved in production.
As a guest, becoming involved in the tasting process is all part of the experience. On arrival I’m presented with an austere china cup containing, quite simply, the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. It’s so good that I realize, with a certain sad resignation, I have permanently problematized my relationship with Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.
Except for the small flow of tourists through the farm’s four guest rooms, life for the Esser family is traditional — including the total pervasion of cacao.
Hot or cold chocolate drinks are taken for breakfast, for afternoon relaxation, or for medicinal purposes. Cocoa butter is used to treat every burn or scratch, and criollo trees lean into the balconies, like swaying eavesdroppers. Even the surrounding region boasts a cuisine entirely indebted to the seductive scents of chocolate. If the peninsula made T-Shirts for tourists, they would probably read “I’ve been to Paria — Cadbury World Eat Your Heart Out.”
The obsession stems partly from a pride in the type of cocoa grown here. Paria is the only region in the world to grow Criollo cocoa — vaunted as the best flavored, with the least bitterness. This tiny stretch of land accounts for five percent of the world’s cocoa production, almost all harvested by manual labor, and quite often by families. And one hundred percent of this output is transformed into superior or luxury chocolate.
The Chocolate Tour: An Indulgent Tasting Session
At Bukare, the culmination of the chocolate tour is an involved tasting session within the hacienda, where chocolate in all its glorious forms is slurped and savored. Whilst not an experience for calorie counters (even Dr Atkins would take a dim view), for me this is the highlight of the day. Numerous slabs of rich cocoa are washed down with Bukare’s signature chocolate drink. Raw cocoa beans are chewed, fragrant cocoa butter sampled, and dishes of fresh mango with chocolate are wheeled out from the kitchen.
At the end of the tasting session, when the other guests leave, Billy makes me an offer I can’t refuse — more chocolate. And with the camaraderie of co-conspirators, we sip coffee sweetened with a thick spoon of chocolate, and polish off the remains of the tasting session.
As I force down a third slice of mango dipped in chocolate, Billy explains how the peninsula is slowly realizing it’s attraction to tourists — even beyond its “chocolate coast” status. A stone’s throw from Trinidad, the region offers deserted Paradise beaches to rival the Caribbean, along with thermal springs, buffalo ranches, and traditional South-American towns.
But as a guest at the hacienda, I am quite content to laze in a hammock, tasting the latest chocolate innovation. Perhaps this is a jungle experience that Bridget Jones could enjoy after all.