VI. Chocolate Roasting on an Open Fire

In no time they met a person who makes it his business to meet everyone & know everything about life in the canyon. Every community has one of these individuals, someone who opens doors few suspect even exist.

If Dan Pearson represents the deal-making, globe-hopping air-force, & son Brian the field commandant on the ground, then chief lieutenant is the affable Noe (pronounced no-áy) – the one who breaks thru defenses. He gets things done. People around him are always laughing with this wisecracker. Don’t be fooled. Beneath his squamate & a rugged leatherneck exterior resides a first-rate ombudsman, an indispensable asset in places like Marañón who fixes everything (both mechanically & socially); literally a jack-of-all-trades. Flat tire en route to… wherever & no car jack? No te preocupes, amigo… He lifts trucks out of mud holes without one, just some wood pilings hacked from forests lining the road will do.

Noe also happens to be an agriculturalist par excellence. Rather than walls of degrees passed out by some prestigious universities after a few years stint, he possesses in his DNA the inherited wisdom handed-down from generation-to-generation over the millennium. His father raised all-white Brahma bulls, sacred in India but top-of-the-line steak in the Americas. This natural insight, along with direct experience accumulated during thirtysome years of life, guides his exploits as well as those of others who see him as the ‘go-to’ guy in the entire canyon, a selfless leader accorded the title Jefe for ‘chief’. He wears it with a magisterial air occasionally, assuming the strong, silent type who rarely speaks but if asked a question everybody listens because when he gives an answer it comes out whole / complete.

Little wonder Jefe Noe became President of the Cacao Growers Association & has the knack to spot all-white cacáo seeds hiding inside their pods. Call it skill or born under a lucky star, this guy would be a superstar on the TV game show Let’s Make a Deal.

His own farmstead includes grapefruits, oranges, coconuts, cooey guinea pigs &, of course, cacáo.

While his mother cooks lunch on an open fire, he nurses some planted seedlings, then inspects a couple harvested pods, opening & emptying them, tasting their fresh seeds & placing others in buckets for processing.

During this routine he asks with amazing nonchalance if Brian wants to be the godfather of his newborn. Life happens all at once sometimes, multifaceted like that. To outsiders, his very matter-of-fact manner in broaching such a milestone seems incongruous. Is he serious or just kidding? Especially from a person with a reputation for being a bit of a prankster, a trait he shares with Brian, along with a sharp engineering mind & perfectionist streak that come in handy for both men in surmounting the inevitable obstacles around the Amazon. In the relatively short span since they met, he & Brian have developed into a working unit. Close in age & temperament has hastened that. They devised, to cite just one example, 10 foolproof markers for identifying cacáo varieties allowing them to eyeball special types, to get under cacáo’s skin so to speak & read the characteristics for fine-flavor heritage without benefit of DNA testing. This extends in a way to their brotherly bond, which has grown so strong they too understand each other at the nonverbal level.

Godfather? It all feels perfectly normal & in the family.

Noe’s mother wants to know what Brian thinks about this godfather business, as well as the lunch she just prepared for them. He smiles broadly while closing his index finger to his thumb in the ‘A-Okay’ hand sign — for him a supreme compliment. Everyone cracks up. Peruvians translate that gesture into marica, a twink signaling he desires more than a bromance but a full-blown bung hole (i.e., ‘si cucharamama, I wanna bareback your pride & joy wearing my shit-eating grin’).

In devoutly Catholic Peru such a perverted highway to heaven leads to the gayborhood of sin & perdition.

To even up insults, Noe, ever the handballing jokester, delivers the corte de mangas, that distinctly Latin ‘up yours’ fist-pump, saying “gringo, how could you in front of my virgin mother?”

Innuendos aside, everyone in the household genuinely cares for one another; they all laugh it off & just drop it to move on.

After lunch the pair head off to the village. They draw up blueprints for a central processing facility in which they hope to eventually unlock the mysteries to fermenting purple & white beans simultaneously, to improve upon their lowly ‘17’ rating.

These steps mean that this Grand Pearson Project is growing beyond a dreamy conception by getting more systematic. Setting up a central facility involves planning, logistics & expenditures, hardly the stuff of romance novels.

Just the challenge of pulling cacáo pods from so many orchards throughout the canyon, transporting them over what passes for the wreckage of a road network, requires a combination of foot, burro, motorcycle & ATVs. The porcelana-like trees which Brian spotted at 4,100 feet in altitude stand only 8 miles but 4 hours away from the processing plant the team finally establishes.

Because quality is the driving force, they hesitate to extend supplies lines too far a distance from it. They prefer to slice open the fruits in the orchards, scoop the seeds with the pulp intact into sealed buckets & leave the empty pods behind for compost. Before sundown the contents must be transported & transferred to the central fermentary, otherwise the seeds shed too much water & the runoff results in off-flavors.

Aging cacáo pods for a pre-determined length in a climate-controlled setting endows the end-flavor with certain virtues of its own that could encourage them to expand the supply radius, widen participation in the program & scale the enterprise. It would mean lugging extra weight back to the fermentation center, a consideration perhaps awaiting another phase of the project.

Factor in next the 15-hour trundle out the canyon to the coastal port at Lima via the Pan American Highway for shipping onward to North America & Europe where cocoa nuts are transformed into refined chocolate.

The port at Piura, Peru is much closer / shorter but Lima ships at a much more reasonable rate to make it worth the extra while (just part of the management skill Dan Pearson brings to the enterprise). The bugaboo of cacáo everywhere: freight eats up the lion’s share of the costs. That candy bar that retails for a couple bucks in the USA nets the growers a few peanuts. Ditto for the ‘gourmet’ kind selling at $10 to $15. Legions of middlemen-markets — brokers, traders & agents — capture the real profits.

Before any of that action can occur, however, Marañón has to get the ferment down.

White beans should be fermented & dried differently than purple beans. Most just toss them together; remember, though, these guys are perfectionists driven by supreme flavor. The whites take 2 to 3 days (roughly 60 hours) while the darks spend 5 days to a week in the sweatboxes of the fermentary. Being from the same pod often, & all covered in a gelatinous pulp, which is which is a mystery & too time-consuming / labor intensive — impossible really — to comb thru them manually.

They need an ace, a consultant to sort it out. Ed Seguine, the authoritative cacáo researcher exuding an evangelical zeal for all things chocolate at Guittard, is one such specialist. But he has since moved on to a position at Mars. Only as a desperate last resort would anyone turn in that direction for Mars, unlike the highly principled Ed himself, has earned a reputation for stealing everything. Maybe INIAP, the research institute up in Ecuador just across the border from Peru. It might balk on the grounds that the 2 countries share more than a border: tensions have historically arisen between them.

Mining the underground circuit, Steve De Vries surfaces.

If Scharffen Berger heralds the official rebirth of real chocolate in the United States circa 1997 after a hiatus totaling a century, then De Vries pioneered its retro craft movement. Whereas John Scharffenberger & his partner Dr. Robert Steinberg set up a facility with sizable equipment that most would recognize for a chocolate factory, De Vries led the way for a new generation of young turks, novices all, in figuring out how to take chocolate dreams & brand them into businesses using the crudest instruments to start with… the stuff that kitchens are made of: a convection oven, a spatula & a vegetable juicer. They kept true to the De Vries’ motto ‘100 Years Behind the Times’ in an inverted twist on novelist Robert Musil’s maxim that “it’s not the genius who is 100 years ahead of his time but average man who is 100 years behind it”. Soon enough they morphed into the superheroes at the forefront of radical chocolate in the USA while still reliant on traditional methods, flying brand names like Amano, Askinosie, Patric, Rogue, & Taza.

De Vries credits Constant van Hall, Paul Zipperer, Robert Whymper & their turn-of-the-century contemporaries as his influences while most of the others found a mentor in John Nanci. Thru the ardor of romancing the bean, Nanci, the professional science chemist behind The Chocolate Alchemist website, became the pied piper of the New American Craft Movement. Many a home-based & micro-batch processor has gotten a start & sourced their initial supplies from him divining his know-how & cacáo seeds – some going on to fame & reverse fortune (investing thousands to make hundreds). But the real payback, of course, comes in producing a world-class bar that hits everybody’s C-spot®.

If it ever gets written, one of the few chocolate books worth reading would be John’s chronicles on destroying the myth that home-ground bean-to-bar chocolate couldn’t be done because it’s overly complicated, too messy, & prohibitively expensive. Truthfully & regrettably… it is. To paraphrase T.S Eliot, making chocolate would be easy were it not for bitter beans, which only emboldens the DIY-tribe to over-achieve & just do it; breaking the mold, rigging compact tools, & perfecting a method so generations to come will have at it & think no more of it than a self-service gas station to prove that anyone can make chocolate. (And with the onset of global-warming, they’ll be growing cacáo trees in their backyards. Added Bonus: no more shady deals trying to truck shipment containers from the tropics.)

De Vries honed his fermentation skills down in south-central Costa Rica at Finca Finmac owned by Hugo Hermalink near Guapiles. There he experimented on techniques during repeat visits that paid off to eventually mandate certain parameters on seeds used for his own chocolate bar line released in 2005.

He settled on a ferment cycle back then that was short yet big, yielding green flavor figments (cacáo verde) with an unrest exceeding even the Domoric levels of another bean-to-bar maverick who purposefully under-ferments – Gianluca Franzoni.

The offshoot produces flavor that serves up Anton Ego, the animated film character, with a fresh perspective in a kind of chocolate ratatouille that alternatively smells drunk of a balsamic persona, partially the result of aging in large blocks for up to several months well after it’s fully processed. Certainly not everybody’s cup of tea, err… bite of chocolate, yet of surreal crystal clarity unseen before, & bracing too. The debate ensues between traditionalists who favor chocolate that tastes more like… well, chocolate vs. the wine-‘n-cheese society that anoints vinegar as pure holy water.

De Vries’ 2007 Costa Rican 84% brought chocolate physics to one of its most bent curves. An epic tour de force that had chocolatarians joining his cult. Sweeter yet less sugar (at a usually unforgiving 84% cacáo-content); soft but sturdy baseline cocoa aroma. The progression showed bright citric splashes first, followed by a good, tolerable bitter rolling over. The De Vriesian architecture framed from there a Zen cocktail without a glass cup, just the clearest windowpane onto lots of ‘negative-space’ filled with swirling citrus around a plump olive in the middle. Raw cacáo marked the distant edges &, defying laws of gravity, held it all for the longest…. the definition of a ‘balancing act’.

Say whatever about choice of bean, the ferment cycle, the spare formulation (just cocoa mass & sugar & nothing else), & controversial flavor (basically an Anejo Tequila Sunrise served with an olive), this bar broke out of the box & the net effect was dumbfounding; a chocolate edit of the Voynich Manuscript – that mysteriously illustrated book from centuries ago by an unknown author in an unidentified script & language whose meaning eludes cryptographers. In other words, a bar worthy of intense study.

Passport stamped & ready to go… chocolate transport to Costa Rica 

Applying all his background experience, De Vries’ original insight saw to it with X-ray vision a proprietary interim step that needed to be inserted between the fermentation & the drying cycle to ‘de-gas’ the purple ‘n white seed mix in Marañón Canyon. This fosters a duration with a golden mean average so neither the whites are over-fermented nor the purples under-fermented.

De Vries devised it & left Brian to design it.

Two years & 81 trial runs later, they perfected the method. A regional sensory panel agreed. That orphan of 17 quickly bumped up to the high 70s. A subsequent batch prompted a gushing phone call. Before then, an 88 was the highest score ever recorded anywhere in Peru’s cacáo history. The fully developed ferment from Marañón so bedazzled the scientists because it exceeded even that. One analyst noted: “never measured so much acid removal & so little vinegar residual post-harvest”.

They were halfway home.

GO TO PART VII –> Terroirism: If You Taste Something, Say Something… & Then DO Something

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