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

Heating up the Sierra

By Nicholas Asheshov

I HAVE just discovered that you can grow almost anything on the freezing punas of the high sierra, way above the tree-line.

Here on the roof of the world the midday sun is sharp but desolate. The grass is thin, tough and grey. There are no trees, no bushes even.

But, as I say, you can grow lettuce and cabbages, roses and onions, broccoli and spinach, tomatoes and strawberries. Actually, there’s nothing to stop you growing peaches and pineapples.

The way to do it is, of course, in a greenhouse invernadero. I put “of course” but actually I didn’t know this until the other day when I went to Patakancha, 3,819ms asl, at the head of a majestic little valley that leads up into the glaciers of the Cordillera Urubamba from the cobbled backstreets of the old Inca town of Ollantaytambo.

Until last weekend I thought that it is the height, lack of oxygen, that prevents trees and most other plants from growing at altitude.

Fortunately, an in-house high school student has explained that while lack of oxygen affects animals, insects, whatever, it makes no difference to plants. These need CO2 which they then convert into oxygen.

As long as you have heat and water, soil and fertilizer you can grow anything you like at any height. At Patakancha I’ve just seen this in action. I am sending an urgent e-mail to my chum Ismael Benavides, Minister, of course, of Agriculture, asking him if he, too, has been told about CO2 and oxygen.

A chill early-morning breeze from distant snow peaks sweeps over bleak paths along which wander woolly llamas and thin ponies.

Inside some modest plastic sheeting+adobe greenhouses it is all fat, healthy hortalizas, hot-house fuchsias and medicinal salvia/aloe. They seem to swell in the T-shirt warmth.

This 11x6x2.50m greenhouse, costing $1,200, has changed the eating habits and finances of many families and at the same time my view of the future of the Sierra. I predict –you read it first here in Country Notes– an agricultural land rush in the high sierra of Peru and Bolivia. This will be related partly to global warming and partly to technology, starting with simple plastic-sheeting greenhouses. Solar electronics will add to the curve.

Living at altitudes of 4,000ms and above is nothing new to Peruvians and Bolivians but the tropical Andes are, in this as in many other ways, unique. In the Himalaya no one lives even at 3,000ms because from there on up it’s snow and ice. But Lake Titicaca, at 4,000ms, has been standing-room-only people for four or five thousand years. The Tiahuanaco cultures on the shores of the Lake were producing wonderful art and buildings at the same time as the Greeks, at sea level, were building the Parthenon and sculpting the Venus de Milo.

John Earls, the great Australian academic, tells us that the terraced amphitheatre of Moray, 3,550ms asl, and the whole Urubamba Valley was a great agricultural research station 600 years ago.

At 4,000 meters in the Andes it freezes most nights. Below zeroº C neither plants nor animals survive unprotected.

In the simple Patakancha hot-houses the midday temperatures get to 40ºC, like Calcutta on a bad day. Of course, someone has to open some vents otherwise all you get is broiled carrots. But with water and spray you get a jungle-type hot-house where you could grow orchids and peaches.

The Patakancha greenhouses are part of a revolution.

When I was last in Patakancha eight years ago it was a miserable dump of round stone ichu-thatch huts.

Today the houses are of whitewashed adobe and tile roofs. Many of the houses have CNN/HBO satellite telly and there’s solar-powered phone service. The llamas are no longer feebly ferrying fire-wood but haughtily hauling the North Face camping gear belonging to European tourists.

The greenhouses at Patakancha were put in by local people led by our friend Justo Callañaupa and financed by a Dutch NGO. Justo, un ingeniero agronomo, has over the past six years created a secondary-level agricultural school, centred on the greenhouses, which now has 120 pupils, including 26 girls: “That’s a big priority today; get more girls to join in. It’s happening.”

Ten years ago no one spoke Quechua into a telephone. Today Quechua is chattered into cellphones in Patakancha just like they do in Patterson, N.J.

Notas de Campo – Published in Spanish in Caretas, week of Aug 31 2007