Cacao Expeditions with Unparalleled Flavors
February 26, 2022 Dale Erwin
Last week, our team visited Esmeraldas. Raul invited us to his finca. He’s the former president of the UOPROCAE cacao Co-operative. His farm is about 4 hectares of jungle, reached by a bumpy road lined with emerald cow pastures and glassy ponds. I sat in the back of the truck with Jenny, watching snowy egrets, bright yellow birds with names unknown to me, and kingfishers take to the air as we rumbled down the track.
A small gaggle of cattle caused a minor traffic jam, but soon enough we reached the finca.
Raul walked us through a diverse jungle of banana trees, mamey, laurel (not the european one), mango, avocado, breadfruit, guava, mandarin, grapefruit, lime, lemon, and others whose names I’ve already lost, and, of course, cacao.
Taking his machete in hand, he sliced a cacao pod neatly off the tree and carefully cut it open to reveal the pulp that covered about fifty seeds within. Over and over, he repeated the process, pointing out different trees and naming the varieties - Trinitrario, Forastero, and Criollo. They all represented, though always with Nacional lineage.
He drew our attention to subtle differences in flavor between the yellow Nacional Forastero and the red Trinitario. I stumbled along after him, I wondered:
What did he use to maintain the soil so healthy? To which he replied - cacao pods, leaf fall, and home-made organic fertilizer.
Which trees grow well next to cacao? He kindly smiled and said - The small tropical tree of guava fixes nitrogen, while banana trees provide shade, and citrus trees share nutrients inside the underground.
As we walked around the finca, some of his neighbors and family were harvesting avocados together. Raul shared that the community tends to get together on a neighbor’s farm to do a minga (shared work project). The host, after the group has finished a large task, like harvesting bananas or building a chicken coop or digging an irrigation/drainage canal, provides food and beverages for the assembled workers. Part of a far-reaching reciprocal understanding of communal life is that the next month the host of that project will help out on someone else’s farm.
After we had walked to the far edge of his land, abutted to a national forest preserve, we heard the gradual crescendo of the downpour breaking above. The foliage was so thick it took a while to register, but Raul and Luis hacked off banana leaves with nonchalance and distributed them as umbrellas.
The chickens that had been roaming in our wake dashed back to their coop, to which we followed in single-file.
The care and attention that Raul and all of UOPROCAE’s farmers bring to bear on their farms - the biodiversity and community coherence - are the vital genesis of our process. We believe that, through our diligent and passionate transformation of cacao into Conexión Chocolate, our bars, couverture, derivatives and snacks can give flavorful expression to our producers’ labor of love.