Heart of Chocolate
Drawn by rumors of unique, uncultivated cacao trees, an artisan chocolatier continues his quest for top-notch nibs in the lowlands of Bolivia
The air is thin at La Paz airport in western Bolivia. La Paz is perched 13,000 feet above sea level, ringed by the Altiplano, or high plateaus of the Andes mountains. I was fresh off the plane from Miami and glad to be on solid ground, but my heart was pounding and I was breathing heavily from the effort of lugging my bags through customs at the unfamiliar altitude of the world's highest capital city.
I was greeted at the airport by Jorge Valverde, a jovial Bolivian involved with the local high-quality coffee export business, who wants to start working with premium cocoa producers as well. Jorge and I were about to set off on a week-long journey, traveling 11,000 feet down from La Paz to the lowlands in the Alto Beni region to explore the communities of cocoa producers who farm the unique cocoa trees native to Bolivia.
Finding dependable sources of high-quality, certified organic cocoa for producing our minimally processed chocolate is challenging, to say the least. It takes months of searching, thousands of frequent flier miles, meeting dozens of new people in faraway places, and a healthy dose of dogged persistence. But after years of hearing about how different and intriguing Bolivian cocoa is, I was anxious to see it for myself and to learn if it could be a new source for Taza Chocolate. For a chocolate maven, this journey was an adventure in search of a rare, distinctive kind of cocoa bean.
Later that same afternoon, after hours of hair-raising driving down two-way, one-lane, gravel mountain roads with a cliff on one side and no barrier between us and eternity, we finally found ourselves in the lush tropical region of Alto Beni, headed through Caranavi and on to the old mining town of Guanay. It was time to rest and recharge for the next leg of our trip, which would take us into the heart of the region where we'd heard tell that there were vast stretches of uncultivated, wild cocoa.
The next morning we were up early. Fueled by Jorge's lovingly prepared daily pot of French press coffee, we climbed aboard a riverboat to continue our journey into cocoa country. These boats are essentially large dugout canoes with topside extensions; very long, with very little draft, and perfect for ferrying supplies and people up and down the region's turbulent rivers. We cruised up calm waters with gold miners working on the riverbanks, past beautiful high rock walls with waterfalls, and up whitewater rapids, until after four hours we reached the small hamlet of Michiplaya.
The first things I noticed were the butterflies, fluttering everywhere. This community has no motorized vehicles, with the exception of the occasional visiting riverboat, and everything is clean and idyllic. Lush grassy landscape, no trash, no ads, just people and animals, forest and river. And lots and lots of cocoa, growing wild everywhere.
These trees didn't look like any I'd seen in my travels before. They are totally unpruned, and barely farmed. The green and yellow pods are much smaller than cultivated cocoa and have a much lower seed yield. But the trees themselves are so tall that they boast more pods per tree than even the best-pruned, most productive hybrid trees I've seen. Carlos, a farmer in the community, cut down a ripe, yellow pod and handed it to me. I cut it open to taste and found the seeds have a much higher bean count per pound than cultivated cocoa (in other words, the beans are much smaller). Tasting the cocoa fruit was amazing—it is similar to cultivated fruit in many ways, but much higher in natural oils, or cocoa butter, and has a delicate, nuanced, floral flavor that's different than any cocoa I've tried before.
This abundance of excellent wild cocoa is a tremendously valuable natural resource for the indigenous Leco people of the Michiplaya community. Carlos spoke of how they would like to develop a new source of revenue, which could support and sustain their community as the gold that has been traditionally mined here begins to run out. The only problem is that the cocoa pods can be 40 to 50 feet in the air and impossible to harvest. Without infrastructure to take advantage of this resource, the community has stayed primarily focused on farming rice, some cattle, coca, and other vegetables for its own consumption. The Leco sell their cocoa at some local markets, but mostly they harvest it just for themselves. Jorge and I came here to find ways to work with them to help them produce their cocoa beans for use in premium chocolate like Taza's, and to provide them with a new market.
For these producers, working with a chocolate manufacturer is a new experience, but it is something they are eager to try to help grow their community's income and begin to make use of the many thousands of cocoa pods that simply are never harvested. I'm excited to continue to work with them over the next several months. Hopefully Taza can help them make this vision a reality and develop a great new source of cocoa beans for our chocolate bars at the same time. Stay tuned at tazachocolate.com to find out if we can bring these beans to market as a new chocolate bar!