The local pelicans know the difference between the tourists and the fisherman in Choroní, a Venezuelan seaside town 50 miles west of Caracas. Ignoring the holiday makers who stand breakfasting on stuffed corn-cakes and heavily sweetened coffee beside the tiny harbour, the birds eye the fishermen as they sell the morning’s catch from their decks, occasionally throwing out a scrap.
I was here hunting chocolate. Venezuela produces some of the world’s best cacao, but the most sought-after comes from Chuao, a village accessible only by sea, in the jungles of Henri Pittier national park. From Choroní, a 20-minute trip by speedboat took me to a beach, from which a jungle road leads two miles inland to Chuao.
There’s a bus, but I decided to walk, enjoying the heat and being overtaken occasionally by locals returning by motorbike after buying fish directly from the boats. They drive with one hand on the handlebars, the other swinging their purchases mere inches above the road.
And beside the road is the cacao. Mango trees and bamboo thickets tower above the shorter cacao plants, which prefer the shade that the canopy provides.
Cacao taken from here finds its way to the finest chocolatiers in the world. William Curley, whose flagship store is in London’s Belgravia, used it to win gold at the most recent Academy of Chocolate awards; other devotees include the celebrated Tuscan chocolate house Amedei, and the Utah-based Amano.
One resident, approaching from the village with his machete, picked out a ripe fruit and halved the thick pod with three swift cracks. “Only suck on the seeds”, he advised as I bit into my first. The cocoa butter coating the seeds tastes like mango: tangy and sweet, leaving a tingling sensation on the tongue. “The chocolate taste doesn’t appear until after fermentation”, he said as he strolled away, swinging his blade in time with his steps.
Cacao production in Venezuela began in the 17th century and soon enormous plantations, known as Gran Cacaos (Big Cacaos), were feeding Europe’s growing hunger for chocolate. The expression remains in Creole Spanish, equivalent to how an English-speaker might refer to someone as a “big cheese”.
Today Chuao’s chocolate production is run on a co-operative basis. “There are no gran cacaos here”, said Jesús Bacalao, a village elder. “We do things the traditional way and it results in a better product.”
Bunting runs the length of the streets, suspended from open windows where Christmas decorations, months out of date, wink in the sunlight. The cacao is dried in the Plaza de Secado, where it is laid out in circular piles on the ground beside the church. The process is a community event, with the best of the beans handpicked by the elders. The beans are baked under the tropical sun for five or so days, after which they take on a dark brown hue and rich aroma.
“The Chuao product is very famous – we all try to get our hands on it”, said Brian Van den Broucke, a Belgian chocolatier who runs La Praline in Caracas. “Good cacao is like a good wine or whisky, and Chuao’s location is optimal: the soil, the water, the strain of tree – all the factors combine to create a very aromatic cacao.”
True to its Caribbean sensibilities, the village is an extraordinarily colourful place. Directions are given not by street, but rather by eye-catching landmarks. And so it was in the pink house beside the yellow pharmacy that Edis Liendo, a local matriarch and chocolatier, was to be found.
Pink without and bright blue within, her shop is a simple affair where she serves up her speciality of chicken stewed in cacao. Thick brown slabs of the stuff – which, consumed unsweetened, is bitter and acrid – are stacked 10-high on the shelves and counters. At the back is a small kitchen where pots of molten chocolate and other delicacies simmer, casting an intense aroma throughout.
“Eating chocolate is the easiest thing in the world”, she said while preparing ice-cold chocolate milk. The five tables crammed into the space don’t come close to meeting her demand. “Chuao lives and breathes cacao”, she said; “every part of our process is a community event”.
At the top end of village, locals and tourists swim in the shallows of the Chuao river, which flows back to the beach, where visitors drink and swing their hips to salsa as they wait for the speedboat back to Choroní.
That evening, I stood on Choroní’s malecón, a seafront wharf that serves as the town’s social hub, enjoying a Chuao chocolate ice-cream. Some drumming started up, and as the infectious beat reverberated around the trees, those who knew what they were doing (and some who didn’t) danced with quick feet and gyrating hips.
Further along the seafront beside the tiny harbour, the fishermen were drinking rum and swapping stories. And out on the water, visible between the rolls of the unrelenting Caribbean, the pelicans were still waiting for scraps.