We all like Chocolate, and it’s good for you

By Nicholas Asheshov

Peru could and should be one of the great chocolate-producing countries, and a new Chocomuseo in Calle Berlin, Miraflores is aiming to push this idea a step further.

The Miraflores Chocomuseo follows the Numero Uno Chocomuseo in Cuzco, a roaring success. I have been to the Cuzco one a couple of times, the latest earlier this week, and it’s full all the time. Here, in an old building in the centre of town just off the Plaza Recojijo, you can watch them roast and grind the cacao beans, known as nibs and add organic sugar produced in Piura, and a score of fillings, from corn and aji to sauco, lucuma, maracuya ,ahuaymanto, raisins, nuts, coconut . There are a few tables where visitors can eat thick, sweet, rich chocolate paste with a touch of aji –a Maya idea– and hot tea made from the husks of the cacao beans.

One of the liveliest features of the Chocomuseo here in Cuzco is the two-hour course in how to make chocolates. You start learning about how and where cacao orchards do best, which is down in the hot-house end of the jungle anywhere it is well over 21º C. and where there’s plenty of water and humidity A couple of hours later you walk away with a simpatico bag of little chocolates that you yourself made by pouring warm paste into moulds where you have put your favorite fillings. Good deal for S/.70 and the tourists love it.

The Cuzco ChocoMuseo was set up by Alain Schneider, a 27-year-old Frenchman, and his partner Clara Isabel Dias, also French. After studying engineering at universities in France and working for Air France, Alain and Clara went to Nicaragua where, after doing NGO work, they set up the first ChocoMuseo in Granada, a colonial town. Then came Cuzco two years ago and, later, Antigua Guatemala, and now Miraflores with more to come in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and El Salvador, and doubtless, elsewhere.

Over a cup of, naturally, chocolate, here at the Cuzco Chocomuseo, Alain, told me something of what he has learned about the cacao and chocolate business in Peru, in which he is today an important player.

Alain is one of those charmingly lively French boys, who is also well-organized enough to be running an international network.

“Every three days we have a Skype conference with the managers of each of the Chocomuseos where we go over the figures and discuss what’s working and what’s maybe not,” he says

So here we have the Internet, French chutzpah and talent, and Wall Street producing a charming, lively useful money-spinner which is sure to provide the basis for new businesses, perhaps chocolaty and perhaps not. There’s home-made beer, for instance.

Alain mentions, too, a friend who is setting up a Pisco Museum –we used to call it a bar, but these days it has to be called, something toney.

One of the things that Alain and Clara Isabel have found is that in Peru getting their hands on a steady supply of good cacao beans is not that easy. “An early lot we had from Quillabamba was fine. But the next lot we had to throw away, no good,” he says.

Here in Urubamba, I have had the same experience. The other day I bought a bar of chocolate-cacao paste under the brand name of COCLA, but it was so bad that it went into the rubbish. Cocla is the big coffee and cacao purchasing group based in Quillabamba. This has produced an unusual and certainly unwanted situation. The Cuzco Chocomuseo buys no cacao from down-the-road La Convencion, where a lot of cacao is produced. Instead, Alain Schneider is buying it mostly from a supplier in Tocache, a pueblo on the banks of the great Rio Huallaga, well to the north and downstream, of Tingo Maria. It is here that cacao and chocolate takes on one of two important political roles. As everyone knows tocache is a centre for coca plantations and the cocaine industry and at least until last year, an operations focus for Sendero Luminoso, both feeding off each other. Now USAID and others have been pushing cacao as an alternative to coca, and have introduced a hybrid variety, CCN51 which is a good producer but the flavor, Alain Schneider tells me, is nowhere near as good as the traditional ‘chuncho’ native Amazon varieties.

I first visited Tocache in 1982, riding upstream from Juanjui in a powered canoe that was doing a bus service up and down this great river. Then Tocache was still a sleepy village. Three years later it had a Banco de Credito branch where locals would take in bagfuls of $100 notes and receive, in exchange, Credito bearer certificates of deposit. Twin-engined planes bound for Colombia buzzed across the dawn skies, ushering in an uncomfortable three decades of wealth and violent death.

But today Alain Schneider buys his six tons of cacao beans from Tocache, indicating a much more positive future for one of Peru’s pleasantest and most bountiful regions.

He also buys some in Piura which, although it is on the Coast, is just a couple of degrees south of the equator.

Cacao has another positive political characteristic. It is naturally an Amazon tree and, like coffee, needs shade from higher canopy-style trees, like mango, avocado, and orange. This means it is ecologically better than most other jungle farming, like cattle, soya, sugar and oil palms. All these, like coca for that matter, see the forest razed and replaced with boring mile upon mile of mono-culture, only marginally less damaging to the world than a layer of cement. Under a canopy is how the good cacao, rather like coffee, is cultivated anyway: Other places that produce good cacao include Ecuador and the Caribbean coasts of Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica where the plantations are often right on the beach. Brazil’s Atlantic coast around Salvador de Bahia is also a famous producing area. The big West African and Southeast Asian plantations are pretty awful, however.

Amazon and Central American cacao from the native chuncho criollo and trinitario varieties has a noticeably better flavor and is used for the best Swiss, Belgian and French chocolates. This is partly, it seems, because if it is done properly, the fermentation of the cacao seeds, gives them a flavor that cannot be equalled by the hybrids either here or in Africa.

The fermentation is carried out in boxes with the fruity pulp and then the seeds are dried out in the sun on concrete or hard earth. The seeds are then transported to the United States, Europe, or to chocolate-makers like, now, the Chocomuseo. .

Peru chocolate has been getting a publicity lift from Astrid Acurio, glamorous wife of Gaston, Peru’s maestro chef, under the brand name Melate.

“Our new Chocomuseo in Calle Berlin will, we hope, make Peruvians more conscious of just how good their chocolate can be,” Alain Schneider says.

Also, chocolate is good for you. Studies carried out in universities and health research places in England and elsewhere have proved, it seems, that chocolate is awes choice for couples seeking to increase the quality of their relationship. More research, clearly, needed.


First published in Caretas in Spanish, the week of September 20, 2012

Javier Silva Ruete — Finance, Politics and Charm 1935-2012

By Nicholas Asheshov

(First appeared in the Peruvian Times, Sept. 22, 2012)

Javier Silva Ruete, who died Sept 21 aged 77, was one of the most colorful of the stars that crisscrossed the Lima financial and political stage over the last three decades of the 20th century.

His most brilliant moment came in 1978 when for two years he was Finance Minister for the outgoing military government.  At the time the country’s public finances were in what was, in those days, the usual shambles, but more so.  The military government, under General Velasco, had been in power for a decade and what with the disastrous agrarian reform, gringo-bashing and expropriations, a billion dollars worth of Russian fighter planes and tanks, exchange controls and so on, by 1978 the whole public administration was on its last legs.  General Morales Bermudez, a sensible, distinguished officer —still alive, I believe— had taken over in 1976 and was moving decidedly but cautiously back to democracy.  This was when he called in Javier Silva Ruete.

Javier, then in his early 40s, moved in a middle-of-the-road leftwing ambient, respectable then and now everywhere, and was one of those people whose energy and personal charm meant that he knew everyone.  I remember Claudio Herska, a top Central Bank economist, saying, “Javier is the only person who can pull this together.”  Claudio was right: Javier did.

His first talent, certainly on this occasion, was to bring together a tight team of public-spirited financial and administrative hot-shots.  These ensured, for a start, that before he accepted Morales Bermudez’s request to become Finance minister, he laid down a set of pre-requisites, conditions.  I can’t remember what they were, though he gave me later his version of them, and it had cost Morales Bermudez dozens of cups of coffee during a final overnight negotiating session.   Morales Bermudez himself had been Finance minister for three years around 1970-73 and knew what Silva Ruete was talking about.

Top members of the Silva Ruete team were Manuel Moreyra, who had earlier been the head of the Central Bank’s legal department and who now became executive chairman of the Bank.  General manager of the Bank was Alonso Polar, a quiet, brilliant bridge player.  The head of the Banco de la Nacion, in effect the Treasury in those days, was Alvaro Meneses, another colourful figure who introduced to Peru the Banco Ambrosiano, the Pope’s bank which went spectacularly bust a year or so later when Alvaro’s friend Roberto Calvi was found dead, hanging over the Thames with a rope round his neck and the other end attached to Blackfriars Bridge.

Silva Ruete’s practical, flexible ordering of public finances, carried out by this team while he dealt with the military and civilian politicos, was greatly aided by a rise in copper prices, and of other minerals and metals, during one of the upsurges following the quintupling of oil prices in the years immediately following 1973.  Peru had been, like most countries, in permanent trouble with the IMF but Washington in general was overjoyed to have some non-military, knowledgeable people to talk to and Peru’s fractured relations with the international community, i.e. the banks and aid officials, was quickly patched up by Silva Ruete.

A new constitution was being put together and everyone was agreed that this was to all intents and purposes a civilian government.  Indeed it was, especially compared to the dreadful Chileans, Argentines, Bolivians and only relatively better Brazilians, Uruguayans, Paraguayans, Panamanians and so on.

In this world, Silva Ruete, with an ivory cigarette holder and a friendly, quick touch for everyone, was a real star.  This was only partly because of his ability to look as though he was drinking in every word and was totally agreed with whoever it was.  He and his team, for instance, wedged out exchange controls, still politically sacrosanct, by introducing no-questions-asked Certificates of Deposit in dollars at the  local banks.  Suddenly it was no longer illegal to have dollars.  Some of the sillier import controls were relaxed and, in general, a breath of financial common sense joined, through Javier, with political moves towards elections, which indeed took place successfully in 1980 when Fernando Belaunde lanslided into power.

The loans and commodities boom featured, in 1979, the extraordinary boom in silver and gold prices, a massive scam engineered by a group of international banks and traders led by the Hunt Brothers, from Dallas.  Peru, and Javier Silva Ruete’s financial administration, unwittingly played a key role in this fraud that saw silver —of which, then as now, Peru is a top producer— gazump from $3 the ounce to $50.  Neither Silva Ruete himself nor Manuel Moreyra at the Central Bank realized that there was anything fishy about the sudden rises —but then, nor did anyone else, much less the New York and Chicago regulators.  The Banco de la Nacion was caught, literally, short and had to be bailed out for over $100mn, real money in those days.  (The Belaunde government later, in an operation led by Pedro Pablo Kuczynski [PPK], the Mining minister, successfully went on to sue the perpetrators of the scam under the anti-Mafia RICO legislation of the time).

Silva Ruete, as is often the case with independent, clever minds, was no success as a businessman.  An early venture, for instance, was into the local manufacture of slide rulers just as handheld calculators were coming in and which, for the price of a box of corn flakes, could do the job much better.  He also went into the printing business but that was not a success either.  He always seemed, however, to be able to land a job in the public sector and was Peru’s representative for some years in Washington, or representative of the Andean Finance Corp, well-paid, tax-free jobs of that ilk.  He even had a new fling at the Finance Ministry for a time under President Paniagua and President Toledo a few years ago.

His personal life was, naturally, colorful, starting with a close friendship from student days with Mario Vargas Llosa, and Javier made a cameo appearance as ‘Javier’ in Mario’s super early comedy ‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter’.