How A Venezuelan Chef Is Teaching Women To Make Chocolate And Money
~ Originally published for NPR/The Salt, September 25, 2017 ~
Even when things aren't going your way, there's chocolate: a universal balm if ever there was one. While cacao beans –– the precursor of a chocolate bar –– grow in many places, one country where you can find superb specimens is Venezuela.
Unfortunately, for well over a decade, the country has been in a downward spiral. One woman is working tirelessly to circumvent this new normal. Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe is a Venezuelan chocolatier who has dedicated her life to proving that her country's cacao can propel an entire industry, even when the world around it is floundering.
"I was born in a kitchen with the scents of guava and the aroma of chocolate," says Di Giacobbe.
The chef learned her culinary skills from her mother, who is from Caracas, and her father, who is Italian. In the '90s, they owned a chain of over a dozen small cafés, but in 2002 the nation was hit by a massive oil strike. The economy tanked and along with it went the cafes. Only one, Soma Café in a popular area of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, is left.
So Di Giacobbe went traveling. At a chocolate show in Barcelona, she spied a poster promoting Venezuelan cocoa beans. It was the proverbial light bulb: She went home intent on using chocolate as a means of transforming her troubled country.
"Our chocolate is a political message," says Di Giacobbe. "It's a vehicle for change."
Venezuela's recent political history is complex, but you can trace its beginnings to the election of Hugo Chávez as president in 1998. On the campaign trail, he promised to share the country's oil wealth with the poorest communities; once he was in office, subsidies — lower-priced goods and government handouts — became commonplace. It worked, until petroleum was locked up during the strike, taking the value of the currency with it. Today, under President Nicolas Maduro, the day-to-day in Venezuela has become untenable, with protests, economic crises and drastic shortages of every basic necessity.
For decades, cocoa (the cacao bean after it's been dried and fermented) had been shipped out of the country only to come back as a finished product. Di Giacobbe decided to shatter that format and teach women (because, she says, they are "the base for the family, the community and the country") to make chocolate and to sell their own products locally.
"Venezuela has this beautiful cacao — white beans that don't have tannins, astringency and bitterness," she says. The country also has Criollo plants, which are considered one of the highest grades of cacao.
She held a few chocolate workshops, and in 2004 she opened Kakao Bombones Venezolanos, a school that trains women to make chocolate and bonbons, using beans purchased from local farmers blended with flavors from the country: mango, guava, guanabana and passion fruit. With lectures on gender equality, competitiveness, fair-trade practices and economic independence, the education guided the women from home cook to micro-entrepreneur.
After Di Giacobbe began buying cocoa from farmers, she spied a second need: to teach farmers the value of their crops and help them learn the best ways to oversee their cacao production. Cacao de Origen La Trinidad, the school, became official in 2013. It focused on teaching farming skills — including crucial fermentation and drying techniques — plus the historical importance of chocolate.
Located on a plantation in the northern part of Venezuela, the school brings small farmers together to learn why their land is special — though traders had been trying to convince them otherwise for more than 50 years. "Producers have been selling their cocoa beans with another origin name because traders told them, 'If you put the real name of your lands, nobody will buy this cocoa,'" Di Giacobbe says. The Spaniards, she notes, held Venezuelan cocoa in high regard when it was first discovered.
Her support doesn't end there. She also buys the farmers' beans for a higher price than what the government offers. To date, she's worked with 60 small producers in over 18 communities.
In Caracas, Di Giacobbe opened Caramelería Gourmet, a store that sells goods made by students, along with national brands. While you can't buy these confections in either the U.S. or online, Di Giacobbe's work drew international attention. In 2016, she won the first-ever Basque Culinary World Prize, which recognizes chefs working to improve local communities through gastronomy. A jury of some of the biggest names in food –– including Dominique Crenn, Enrique Olvera and Massimo Bottura — selected Di Giacobbe.
Joan Roca, a judge on the jury and chef/co-owner of the restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, felt that Di Giacobbe's work helped give the prize meaning. "What she does is extraordinary," he says. Di Giacobbe used her $100,000 Euro prize to fund a second school, Cacao de Origen Emprendedores Caracas, now under construction.
While some of Venezuela's best cocoa does get exported — about 0.5 percent of the country's total production, or roughly 8,000 tons — a lot of what it sends to international market is "hit or miss," says Gary Guittard, CEO of Guittard Chocolate Company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He considers Venezuelan cacao to be the "crème de la crème," but he says there's no good quality control. That's because the government has set one price for all cocoa, regardless of care, which means farmers can mishandle their beans in any way.
Recently, Guittard had the opportunity to purchase a Venezuelan cacao farm that had one of the greatest collections of trees the chocolate maker had ever seen. He passed because of the outstanding problems with the government.
"There isn't a place in the world with their microclimates and flavors," says the fourth-generation chocolate maker. He sighs when he shares this, but he is hopeful, too: "Nobody has that amount of different genetics. It'll come back."
Di Giacobbe fervently believes that the bean-to-bar movement visible today on almost every shelf — from your local corner store to the nearest airport terminal — is what will rescue Venezuelan chocolate from obscurity.
And her unflagging commitment to growing the sector — 11,000 women have already stepped through the program — may well ensure a new crop of chocolatiers and farmers are ready to meet increased demand for high-quality chocolate. But it won't be easy.
Even obtaining sugar, one of the most basic ingredients in chocolate making, is a test of resourcefulness. Once bountiful, the sugar cane crop has experienced successive years of failure in Venezuela. This means the sweet stuff must be bought on the black market for "crazy prices" or brought in from abroad. Even Coca-Cola has grappled with the problem. For a few months this summer, the beverage giant had to stop production at a Venezuelan plant because of the missing ingredient. If Coke has issues, just imagine what it's like for everyone else. But Di Giacobbe remains undaunted.
"I think that Venezuela, in the very close future, will have very good things to say," says Di Giacobbe. "And we will say it with cacao and chocolate." Until then, when Di Giacobbe leaves the country, she brings with her a suitcase full of chocolate. And when she returns, her bags are packed with sugar.