Today Venezuela produces about 17,000 tons of cacao a year, less than one-half of 1 percent of the world’s production, said Cesar Guevara, president of the country’s cacao industry association. Venezuela is one of a select group of countries producing fine aromatic varieties of cacao, along with Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, and some other Caribbean islands. Nonetheless, cacao has long been viewed as an artisanal crop here and hasn’t been promoted for export on a large scale.
Connoisseurs differentiate between the rich assortment of varieties of cacao in Venezuela, with names such as Porcelana and Rio Caribe, as they would with fine wines.
‘‘Venezuela has always been a fantastic, wonderful chocolate for me,’’ said Michael Recchiuti, a chocolatier in San Francisco, California, who chooses Venezuelan chocolate for some of his creations and says it has a distinctive flavor with touches of yellow fruit and ‘‘blond tobacco’’ notes. He said he considers it to be among the world’s finest, along with chocolates from Madagascar, Ecuador and other countries.
El Rey’s business has expanded since 1995, when it launched a line of single-bean variety bars. They come in shades from milk chocolate to dark chocolate named after varieties of shade trees found on plantations.
Another business that has been flourishing is the family-owned Hacienda San Jose on the eastern Paria Peninsula, which has been producing cacao since 1830. Sales manager Claudia Franceschi, who represents the family’s sixth generation in the business, said domestic sales of their Chocolate San Jose bars have more than doubled recently and a new brand of dark chocolates will be exported starting next year.
German-born Kai Rosenberg, however, tells a different story. He said his small plantations were seized by the government without warning when National Guard troops arrived in 2010. ‘‘There was no explanation. They just came and put a lock on my door and said we had to go,’’ said Rosenberg, who hasn’t been able to talk with anyone in the government since about compensation.
‘‘They don’t want to pay, and this is the rule rather than the exception,’’ said Rosenberg, who for nearly three decades worked to recover rare varieties of criollo cacao. He is now challenging the government in court but isn’t optimistic about his chances.
Meanwhile, the government’s plan to buy and sell cacao in Barlovento remains up in the air; private companies such as El Rey and Nestle continue to lead the market nationwide. ‘‘We’re not exactly sure how this is going to pan out,’’ Redmond said. Officials with the state company couldn’t be reached for comment.
In a previous state foray into the market in the 1970s, the government sought to establish a monopoly to buy and sell cacao. But Redmond and others say that led to a disastrous drop in production and the effort was scrapped.
For now, El Rey is focusing on its own efforts, including producing a ‘‘private reserve’’ chocolate brand with a variety of cacao once grown on the same model farm that was seized by squatters. It also has adapted to expanding regulations, obtaining documents showing compliance with labor obligations and permits to move shipments both within the country and through the ports.
In order to ensure quality, it’s providing regular advice to small farmers, a job that falls to agricultural scientist Francisco Betancourt.
While chatting with one farmer recently, Betancourt rolled a freshly dried cacao bean between his fingers, then raised it to his nose and declared, ‘‘This one’s beautiful.’’
It smelled nutty and fruity, like the beginnings of a delicious chocolate bar.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap