“There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who love chocolate, and communists.”
-Leslie Moak Murray in ‘Murray’s Law’ comic strip
Early yesterday morning, we said a sad goodbye to São Paulo and boarded a plane bound for Lima, Peru. Peru is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, and Alex had only visited once when he was 7 years old. Tired and jetlagged, we arrived at Jorge Chavez airport early in the morning, sat at a little airport cafe, and ordered one of their coffee drinks. Luckily, they accidentally brought me a hot chocolate instead – it was by far the happiest mixup I have ever experienced.
Peruvian chocolate is different than anything else – it’s something special here. Chocolate comes in many forms, but the particular variety we experienced is a Peruvian exclusive called “Chocolate para Taza” (literally, “chocolate for the cup”). This type of chocolate usually comes sweetened and flavored with cinnamon and clove. It’s deliciously thick, rich, and spicy in just the right way, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to fiendishly gulp it all down or lazily savor it.
In its packaged form, chocolate para taza con canela y clavo is a little bizarre. Since it’s sweetened, the texture is super grainy. It’s minimally processed and it doesn’t melt in your mouth – it’s not made for eating. It actually takes over 10 minutes of boiling in water or milk for this particular chocolate to melt and emulsify into a drinkable state, and even still, you’ll end up with a spoonful of liquid ganache at the bottom of your cup after you’re finished. A standard recipe for Peruvian hot chocolate usually calls for a bar to be broken and simmered in 3 parts milk to 1 part water, plus a tiny pinch of salt.
As far as edible chocolate goes, the quality of Peruvian chocolate is an underappreciated gem. Peru is one of the few places in the world that can actually grow cacao beans AND process them locally – most major cacao-producing areas (like Africa, Venezuela, and Brazil) ship the fermented, dried beans to the US or European chocolatiers who then fashion them into confections. The Peruvian Amazon also has a very distinct terroir; located in the lush tropics where the Andes mountain range meets the northern Amazon rain forest, the high altitude makes the soil different than any other cacao growing place in the world, giving it a cleaner, crisper, purer taste. In October 2009, chocolate produced from the cacao beans of a small agricultural cooperative deep in one of the country’s rain forests was named the most aromatic in the world by the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris. I haven’t tried many of the more expensive specialty chocolates here, but my favorite everyday eating chocolate is made by Winter’s Extra Dark Chocolate.
Peruvian cacao exports have increased by more than 400% in the past decade, and production this year will be around 35,000 metric tons, putting Peru close to the top 10 biggest producers. The USDA is working with a local research center in San Martin, the Institute for Tropical Crops (ITC), to identify new varieties of cacao beans. The institute is studying 342 specimens collected from 12 watersheds. They are ultimately trying to categorize the DNA of cacao in hopes of creating a Peru-specific chocolate that could be marketed to DOC status, much like the way countries sell wine.
Hiderico Bocangel, general manager of San Martin’s Oro Verde cooperative, says Peru is already creating a niche in the chocolate world. “We have the perfect conditions here to produce exceptional chocolate,” he says.
As with most anything edible, I believe that things simply taste better when they’re eaten close to where they were grown. An added plus to Peruvian chocolate is that although many farmers can’t afford to become certified “Organic”, they also can’t afford to use harmful pesticides (which are actually counterproductive because they kill the bug that pollinates the crop in the first place!) – so almost all of the chocolate you’ll get from Peru is pesticide-free and naturally organic.
From Coca to Cacao: Changing Crops in Peru
Peru is still new to the cacao business. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, coca (the raw material used to make cocaine) dominated Peru because the market for coca was strong and paid well. Some farmers grew cacao, but it was not as profitable as coca. International commodities brokers were not looking to pay farmers well for their cacao, so farmers continued to grow the crop that did pay well. Coca production(and the subsequent drug trafficking) grew out of control in the late 80’s, and the Peruvian government slowly started trying to eradicate the excessive coca farms. However, the eradication of coca has punished farmers while failing to reduce the prevalence of coca in Peru. Eradication efforts cause farmers to move their coca crops every couple of years to avoid the eradication of their livelihood. Farmers clear swaths of rain forest, plant coca, harvest, and then move to another area of rain forest, clear that and continue the cycle year after year. Farmers needed to provide for their families, and coca was a crop that allowed them to feed their families. Destructive strategies do not address the underlying reasons for coca production.
Sustainable alternatives to coca have been sought for years. In the early years, low value crops were suggested to farmers as substitutes to coca. The low value and labor intensity of the alternatives made them unsustainable – would you want to work twice as hard to earn less than half as much? I’d probably plant coca too!
Cacao and coffee are two alternatives that thrive in the same climate as coca and have replaced much of the coca that had been grown in eastern Peru. The superior quality of coffee and cacao grown in eastern Peru earn a higher price when farmers take their harvest to market. Coffee and cacao also help preserve the environment since they grow on the same piece of land for upward of 30 years, maintaining biodiversity of the land ensures the land’s continued fertility. The region of San Martin is one of the best examples of how to transition from a narco-zone to a thriving region that provides opportunity to its people.
Peruvian Chocolate keeps its production near the fields of cacao, which also has the benefit of providing job opportunities for women in Peru. Many small cacao farming communities have brought in European chocolatiers to teach the local Peruvian women specialty chocolate making techniques and tips on how to preserve the unique flavor and aroma of the beans.
The nineteenth century historian Hugues Branncfrot said that the best beans were the ones first exposed to moonlight for four nights. Those who tilled the soil slept separately from their wives the night before planting to build their passion to the max; as soon as the seeds were planted in the ground, the planters made love to their wives (or concubines) to ensure a plentiful harvest.