It’s home to some of the world’s rarest and most exciting cocoa. The only problem is, you have to climb up a mountain on the back of a mule to reach it. Hotel Chocolat goes on an adventure in Colombia.
Last March, Hotel Chocolat’s Adam Geileskey and Matt Dickens were enjoying a coffee outside a café in the Arauca district in northeastern Colombia, when they noticed two soldiers nearby with semi-automatic pistols drawn.
Matt and Adam watched in growing alarm as the two men moved commando-style towards a shop across the street.
“They looked like they were on a raid,” remembers Adam. “I started to think we should get behind some cover.”
But no one else seemed concerned. It turned out the soldiers were just going shopping.
That’s the way it is in parts of Colombia. Locals call it caliente: ‘hot’, meaning ‘dangerous’.
For the last 50 years, the Colombian government has been locked in a cocaine-fuelled war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC. Peace negotiations are going on, but the British government still advises against “all but essential travel” to some areas of the country, including Arauca.
But after trying some outstanding cocoa beans from Tumaco, we decided that visiting Colombia really was essential.
Although Colombia is famed for cocaine and conflict, it’s also home to some of the world’s greatest and oldest cocoa varieties. Today, cocoa farmers are trying to plant the seeds of a brighter future for the next generation.
We decided to meet Colombian farmers face to face, and see if we could help.
Matt Dickens, our Head of Purchasing, and Adam Geileskey, Head of Chocolate Development, flew in to Bogota and then on to Arauca. From there it was a four-hour drive to a town called Arauquita on the Rio Arauca, the border between Colombia and Venezuela.
“It felt like being in Northern Ireland about 15 years ago. Military checkpoints with sandbags are every five or six miles,” says Adam.
To the rest of Colombia, this is a region known for violence, but now locals are trying to recreate themselves as a community respected for cocoa.
In Arauquita, people depend on cocoa, and they’re proud of it. They’re rebuilding their market square with a cocoa theme and like to paint pictures of cocoa pods on their homes.
Matt and Adam’s guides in Colombia were local agricultural experts Carlos Velasco and Guillermo Cadena, who introduced them to the Coomprocar farming cooperative.
They spent their time visiting family farms, meeting farmers and seeing how they worked. These are mostly family farms, with a typical size of three hectares.
Colombians love chocolate, and there’s a strong internal market that eats up most of the cocoa that Colombian farmers grow – about 50,000 tons per year.
The only downside is that all the high-quality Colombian cocoa gets lost in bulk cocoa sales.
“There’s no incentive for a Colombian farmer to grow fi ne cocoa instead of ordinary beans,” explains Adam. “They’ll get the same price for their harvest, and it all gets mixed up together.”
“We visited a beautiful family plantation that was excellently managed, but all they grew was the CCN51 variety. It gives high yields, but it’s not a fine cocoa.”
We could help change that, assisting local farmers develop fine Colombian cocoa to a higher standard through access to quality varietals and superior drying and fermentation techniques.
And that could let us guarantee to buy farmers’ harvests at a premium price, giving them the security to
keep investing in their farms for a sustainable future.
The question is: Which are the best quality Colombian cocoa bean types? No one really knows. Adam and Matt gathered samples of Arauca beans, and then set off further north, to discover truly wild cocoa.
The Big People
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a mountainous region just 26 miles from Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
It’s home to the Arhuacos, an indigenous, Chibchan-speaking community who have harvested cocoa for over 2,000 years.
Their culture predates the arrival of the Spanish and they live simply, high on the sides of the mountains.
They call themselves the ‘Big People’. They believe Sierra Nevada is the heart of the world, and their duty is to protect it. For them, the rest of us are the ‘Little People’.
The Arhuacos don’t use cars, just mules, and rely mainly on subsistence agriculture, raising livestock and harvesting fruit, vegetables, wheat and cotton.
The men make their own clothes, and their bags have become highly sought after by fashionistas in cities like Bogota.
The Arhuacos harvest coffee commercially, but there are no cocoa plantations here, just wild cocoa trees that produce a rare variety of white Criollo beans, noted for having very little
Neither Matt nor Adam had ever seen cocoa growing anywhere but on a plantation and were keen to see
it in the wild. With the help of local guides, they set off up the mountain on mules.
“It felt like going on a pilgrimage, a quest to see authentic wild cocoa growing in its natural habitat,” says Adam.
Nearly four hours later, exhausted and sore, they found just four wild Criollo trees, bearing a grand total of three mature cocoa pods.
One cocoa pod holds enough beans to produce about 50 grams (or two ounces) of chocolate.
Back in the UK, the chocolatiers at our Huntingdon development kitchen are now trying out different roasting and conching times for the cocoa we’ve gathered from Colombia, looking for the best cocoa and the best way to turn it into chocolate. We’ll keep you posted.