Cacao In the Amazon: Uncovering What Comes Before Chocolate
Photography Michal Chochol & Text Sophie Pinchetti
Cacao might be grown worldwide nowadays, but it is likely here in the lowland rainforests of the Amazon River basins of South America that the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) first originated. Prized amongst Amazonian peoples since time immemorial for its richness in nutrients and deep flavour, it is no wonder that in Latin, cacao translates to “food of the gods”. While cacao became a key export during Colonial times, in recent times, local, community-managed and sustainable cacao production initiatives are showing promise as a source of income and, when combined with other enterprises, part of an alternative to extractive projects.
With this in mind, we recently led our first-ever Cacao Fermentation Workshop in the community of Tres Unidos in the Nanay River, located a stone’s throw away from our Permaculture site. Led by British artisanal chocolate expert Rory Wilkinson, who has been traveling around Latin America giving cacao fermentation technique workshops based upon his work experience with artisanal chocolate factories in Europe, the workshop took place over one week. It was attended by both our permaculture staff and five local people, including two local ladies, Viviana Tenazoa and Griselda Canayo, who run the local stores in Tres Unidos and make cacao delicacies (combining cacao, mani and honey) which are then sold to the guests of our sister organization, The Temple of The Way of Light.
This workshop aimed to test which fermentation techniques would give the best results for the quality of taste of their confections. Typically, Viviana Tenazoa and Griselda Canayo have been fermenting the cacao seeds with the juice, a fairly quick process. During this workshop, Rory presented the classic fermentation technique used by artisanal chocolate makers. This fermentation technique, which involves using a box with holes, allows the juice from the seeds to drain out and promotes the presence of a special type of bacteria which is essential for the cacao to then release a richer taste.
After placing the cacao seeds into the fermentation box, the box was then visited each day in order to monitor the fermentation process and to ensure that the temperature raises to the proper level. In this instance, and perhaps owing to the warm Amazonian climate, the process happened naturally after six days. “It was interesting to learn a new technique to ferment cacao…it seems like something innovative. But I’d like to do some modifications to the technique so that the process lasts 3 days instead of 6”, comments Viviana.
After roasting and grinding the seeds and eventually making small samples, we then led a tasting session with cacao made using Rory’s fermentation process and cacao made using the ladies’ usual fermentation process. Opinions were 50/50 though it was noted that Rory’s fermentation process resulted in a fuller-bodied taste: “The cacao has a better color, flavor and aroma”, affirms Viviana.
In the past, numerous collectives stimulated cacao production around the Nanay River. But today, many of these cacao farms are little used, and many cacao fields are overgrown. By speaking with locals of Tres Unidos, the potential to revive cacao production has become clear, as is the opportunity to find a market for cacao made using the fermentation technique shown during the workshop. Unexpectedly, and as a result of learning the fermentation technique, the idea then arose for two new potential products using the fermentation juice: a unique cacao vinegar and cacao liquor. These special and unusual creations could then be marketed to guests of The Temple of The Way of Light, offering a further economic opportunity to the community.