By Joselina Rodriguez
Photos: Liliana Elias
Venezuela not only was the place where Providence arranged that the first seed of Criollo cocoa germinated, known as “superfine cocoa” as well, but is also the place where it is better grown. Likewise, if we had to be more specific about the origin of the best cocoa, no doubt we would have to go to the south of Lake Maracaibo.
The secret is hidden in the ancestral lands that make up the foothills of the Venezuelan Andes, in Tachira, Merida, Trujillo and Zulia states. It was precisely in this geographical strip, where the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes reported the existence of a cocoa plantation in his arrival to Venezuela, as it is highlighted by Iraima Chacon, coordinator of the Socialist Research Centre and Cocoa Development (CESID-Cacao) at Corpozulia. “Cortes saw 100,000 tress of Criollo cocoa that were planted by the indigenes in Ancon de Maruma, geographically located nearby the Pocó river, between the boundaries of Merida and Trujillo” she says.
The historian Luis Alberto Ramirez is added to this statement in his article “The cultivation of Venezuelan cocoa from Maruma,” noting that “the first areas of spread of cocoa cultivation in the South of Maracaibo Lake were located bordering the course of Chirurí river in Maruma, where the peninsular Spanish found splendid cocoa plantations, showing their foliage and fruit with surprising exuberance “.
Entrails of Porcelana Criollo Cocoa
Beyond being the cradle of cocoa in Venezuela, South Lake is known for being the only region in the world where the coveted Porcelana criollo cocoa is produced and harvested. A variety of criollo cocoa prized worldwide for its organoleptic properties. For this reason, engineer Iraima Chacon claims that its aroma, taste and texture are quite different from other varieties of cocoa throughout the world.
“It tastes like raw cane sugar, malt, candy and it’s very aromatic. Thanks to its superfine quality and flavour it is the favourite of all chocolate makers worldwide. It is also characterized because its crust is very thin and soft, its almonds are great and the colour of the seed varies from matte white, as the porcelana, to creams and pink colours. From that is its name. A white pink call them segregated white, because the almond in the middle is white and its edges are pink or light violet “explains the expert
Other qualities that define this precious and delicate fruit are detailed by Reyes and Capriles in their book “Cocoa in Venezuela”, where it is described by its short and cylindrical shape, narrow at the tip to form a short end, perfectly marked by five grooves, which are slightly defined or totally missing.
According to the Coordinator of the Socialist Centre for Research and Development of Cocoa from CORPOZULIA, Iraima Chacon, in South Lake other varieties of criollo cocoa such as Merideño, Lobatera and Novillero as well as Forestero and Trinitario cocoa are also grown, treating this last as “Modern Criollo cocoa” said Juan Carlos Motamayor known Venezuelan researcher expert in cocoa genetics.
“Each and every one of those Criollo cocoas is considered ancestral, because they are the beans sowed by our indigenes that at colonial period were sheltered in the mountains by the tribes. This is the reason why it is said that the Western area of the country is the origin of our ancestors’ Criollo cocoas and therefore, the cradle of the best cocoa in the world, “he says.
South Lake visitors could see the variety of pods in the different farms, whose green, yellow, orange and burgundy hues adorn the cocoa crops from the tree stem up to its slender branches.
SOUTH LAKE IN FIGURES
Nowadays in South Lake there are over 5,100 hectares of cocoa fields throughout various farms and haciendas, surrounded by majestic plantations of other crops of fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, coffee, guava, pineapple and papaya, among others. According to engineer Chacon, those 5,100 hectares of cocoa crops produce 3,800 tons per year, a figure that is expected to improve thanks to the recent agreement made between Nestle and Corpozulia, consisting of planting 80 hectares of Criollo Porcelana cocoa in order to encourage the production of this food sector in the region. They also have Nestlé Cocoa Plan, a company that promotes the development of cocoa crops by training and supplying quality plants to producers.
GERMPLASM BANK OF CRIOLLO COCOAS, UNIQUE IN THE WORLD
Another strength offered by “The cradle of cocoa in Venezuela” is the Germplasm Bank under the aegis of Corpozulia, located in km. 41 of the parish El Moralito in Zulia state, unique in the world having 15 hectares of Criollo Porcelana cocoa, 1.5 hectares of Criollo Guasare cocoa and 1 hectare of Criollo cocoas harvested in Zulia and Tachira states.
“This bank, as well as the nursery with an annual capacity of one million seedlings, allows us to increase the seed production in the area, an advantage for new cocoa producers, who are taking first steps on plantations, and also for those who are already formally established ” the coordinator of CESID-Cacao said.
FROM THE CITY TO THE COUNTRYSIDE
It is said that when crises arise opportunities appear, and as an illustration of this is South Lake. The region is giving welcome to new cocoa producers moving from the city to the countryside in search of better living conditions due to Venezuelan economic situation, caused by a fail in oil prices, insecurity, scarcity of food, high cost of living, among other factors.
A perfect example is the family business Chococao, c.a. presided by Armando Parra, who, at his young age, works hard to assist more than 800 cocoa farmers that live in South Lake supporting them through the Cocoa Plan, an initiative that Nestle has put at the disposal of local cocoa producers to provide them with tools towards an adequate management of the product. Chococao also serves as a stockroom, aimed to get an organised distribution of cocoa in the market.
“What in previous decades had meant abandoning the countryside, today it has become a new life project for many city dwellers that have seen the potential of South Lake lands, especially for planting cocoa, bananas, soursop, among others. Who in the past were attracted by oil, today return to get reconciled with nature, cultivating and making a living off the land as their main livelihood “he points out
Although Venezuelan cocoa is recognised worldwide as the best of all, still it does not even mean 1% of world production, a situation that forces many producers, unions, government, technicians, specialists and students to evaluate and design new projects, programmes and plans to change this reality.
South Lake is aware of this scenario. However, beyond changing the vision of quantity in terms of production, the cocoa sector wants to mainly improve and retake the prestige of Venezuelan cocoa, improving its quality through processes, such as fermentation, to enhance their flavours and aromas.
Other big challenges for South Lake are: to increase the production range from 300 kilograms per hectare to 1,500 kilograms, to promote good agricultural practices, to educate new generations, to provide tools and machinery to producers, to fix fair prices and to strengthen the relations between public and private sectors in order to give cocoa its well-deserved value, highly praised abroad, in addition to seek its appellation of origin, deserved honour for the land where the best cocoa in the world was born.
TOURIST SOUTH LAKE
The natural diversity in South Lake regions make any visitor delighted with its mountains, waterfalls, streams, a bushy, generous and unique vegetation, trails, crops and other almost unexplored corners. All this picturesque scenery makes this geographical strip an excellent tourist spot for the enjoyment of tourists who love the peace and serenity that emerge from nature.
“In addition to a beautiful scenery, South Lake is plenty of human warmth and a family atmosphere in its small towns, which still preserve their past habits and traditions. Additionally, there are tours of cocoa farms, thus the visitor is seduced even more for this worldwide recognised seed, ” Irama Chacon says.
GOING ALL OVER COCOA PLANTATIONS IS A SPECTACLE
Every road going through South Lake is full of surprises and so we have checked from Vivaelcacao.com during our visit. This is the land where the best cocoa in the world is grown, the protagonist seed of our country. Here, people wake up to the smell of hot chocolate, in middle of those beautiful landscapes that take the breath away to anyone, and then go to work deep into the land that rewards them with privileged fruits. One of them is honoured on our website: cocoa.