Cacao Makes a Comeback in Puerto Rico

Cacao is taken into account a heart-opener. It stimulates blood circulation and is utilized in ceremonies to foster a willingness to study, develop and join. It appears becoming, then, that cacao can be the crop to encourage Puerto Rico to open its coronary heart as soon as once more to native farming and obtain worldwide acclaim within the course of. 

With an abundance of fertile soil and very best rising situations, at first look, it appears unusual that greater than 80 p.c of Puerto Rico’s meals is imported. Neighboring islands such because the Dominican Republic develop and feed their inhabitants based mostly primarily off their land, importing less than 20 p.c of their meals on common. 

However Puerto Rico is completely different. Agriculture was once a lifestyle for a lot of, with small household farms all through the island tending to crops equivalent to plantains, sugar cane and rice. 

Then, all through the 1900s, tax incentives lured main pharmaceutical firms to the island. All of the sudden, being a farmer was regarded down upon. The lifestyle of the jibaro was traded for the metropolitan lifetime of a company worker. The pay was higher, the work simpler and, over time, agriculture misplaced its attract. Coupled with hurricanes that routinely devastated harvests, a mismanagement of assets and the bodily calls for of handbook work underneath the new Caribbean solar, Puerto Ricans stepped away from the land and into the workplace. 

Nonetheless, over the previous decade, agriculture has made a comeback. The introduction of gourmand crops equivalent to cacao have made farming extra attractive and extra profitable. Now, domestically grown cacao is a burgeoning trade, with island farms and chocolatiers proving that Puerto Rico se levanta—it rises up as soon as once more. 

Pictures courtesy of Hacienda Chocolat.

Yadira Vazquez is the proprietor of Hacienda Chocolat in Fajardo. The farm not too long ago gained silver within the 2021 Cocoa of Excellence Awards, which acknowledges high quality, taste and variety in chocolate from world wide. Of the 235 samples that have been submitted, solely two Puerto Rican producers gained awards. That’s not too shabby for a relative newcomer to the gourmand chocolate trade. Solely 4 Puerto Rican farms have ever gained awards on this bi-annual competitors, and solely not too long ago, in 2019 and 2021.

Vazquez has all the time thought of herself a “plant woman.” She started experimenting with cacao in her yard, planting 10 bushes at first. Then Eduardo Cortés, vp of operations for Puerto Rican-based Chocolate Cortés, obtained a specialty crop grant from the federal authorities to sponsor 10 farmers to develop cacao on the island. Vazquez was chosen for the second spherical of funding, and her grove blossomed. Now, Hacienda Chocolat has roughly 3,000 cacao bushes, all completely different varieties. Her success comes as a shock even to herself; she nonetheless juggles operating the farm together with her profession as a radiologist. However the coaching she acquired from the federal grant cash has allowed her farm to flourish. 

She acquired programs and certifications from Ecuador, Costa Rica and Peru, learning cultivation, studying learn how to practice workers and honing her information of horticulture. Whereas lots of the grantees have been dedicated to strictly rising cacao, Vazquez was all the time keen about sharing her love for gardening, sustainability, and the various methods we are able to use vegetation past consumption. Her grandfather was once a espresso farmer and grew cacao for private use. Vazquez sees cacao manufacturing as returning to her household’s roots, actually and figuratively. 

“Each time I stroll and see the farm, I’m reminded that, within the Aztec and Mayan cultures, cacao was thought of the meals of the gods,” says Vazquez. “I’m amazed by all of the issues we are able to do with the tree past chocolate.” Certainly, cacao has a number of medicinal makes use of, and it’s utilized all through the island in sudden merchandise equivalent to toothpaste.

“When individuals come to the farm and I start to elucidate what we’ve got, it’s a pleasure for me to speak about this piece of paradise,” says Vazquez. “I put up a Fb web page simply to share what we have been doing, and I began getting a ton of messages from individuals who wished to go to,” she says. “The messages haven’t stopped.” On a current weekend, Vazquez hosted a whiskey and chocolate tasting class, with periods at 10 am and 1 pm. Friends have been nonetheless milling about at 8 pm, enraptured by the farm. Vazquez notes that cacao is yet one more factor through which the individuals of Puerto Rico can take pleasure. “It’s taken a while,” she says, “however, little by little, individuals are studying concerning the fruit of cacao.” 

That’s why Vazquez plans to increase the enterprise additional, opening a chocolate manufacturing facility in Rio Grande in 2023. Guests can tour the farm to study concerning the rising course of, then see the manufacturing of chocolate from bean to bar within the on-site manufacturing facility. At present, company can take excursions of Hacienda Chocolat in the course of the weekend, in English or Spanish. Vazquez additionally hosts personal and particular occasions, equivalent to an artwork, wine and chocolate expertise the place company create a portray whereas sampling charcuterie and the model’s single-origin artisanal chocolate bars. 

Vazquez additionally places an emphasis on collaborating with and championing different native companies, equivalent to her relationship with Montadero Chocolate. 

German Ramos, proprietor of Montadero Chocolate in Caguas, opened his small chocolate store final yr, mid-pandemic. He makes use of 100-percent domestically sourced cacao and has been the official chocolatier for Dewar’s on the island. He additionally helps and recommends Hacienda Chocolat’s manufacturing, talking about it extremely all through his store’s two-hour chocolate tasting class. 

Ramos attributes his success to the farmers on the island. “It’s not simply me making good chocolate,” he says, “it’s them rising high-quality cacao.” Ramos was beforehand within the occasions trade, however he pivoted in the course of the pandemic. Now, he’s a self-taught grasp chocolatier and hopes to cross his information on to his younger son, who typically wanders the shop on weekends. 

Firms equivalent to Godiva and Lindt don’t have retailers in Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, Montadero’s storefront opened in 2021 and is a part of a handful of manufacturers introducing gourmand chocolate to on a regular basis shoppers on the island. Positioned in Caguas, the store is in the midst of a dense residential space, and each side of the enterprise celebrates Puerto Rico. The molds of the chocolate bars themselves, as an example, are within the form of the mountains from Ramos’ hometown. Within the retailer, Ramos’ grandmother is featured in a mural depicting the chocolate-making course of. The message is evident: Puerto Rico does chocolate, too. And Montadero Chocolate will not be alone. Shops equivalent to Loiza Darkish, Jeanmarie Chocolat and La Chocolatería are all contributing to the rising motion. 

Whereas it could have skipped a technology, the love of farming and high-quality crops is returning to Puerto Rico, one cacao bean at a time.