Venezuela’s Criollo Cacao Comeback: John Panagotacos interviews Saul Amarista, of Premier Organics
Recognizing the special heritage that Venezuela’s Criollo cacao has, Premier Organics is working hard to re-introduce this rare bean to the world through its Artisana chocolates.
José Manuel Navarro Larez, my grandfather, was the person who first introduced me to the world of cacao. The year was 1979. During this time, he was researching how to improve Criollo cacao farming and analyzing how to prevent and cure typical Criollo cocoa tree diseases. Of course, that really wasn’t unusual since my whole family has been farming Criollo cacao for centuries.
In the year 1987, I started working on my vision of developing Venezuelan Criollo cacao by turning cacao farmers into rural entrepreneurs. In 1990 we consolidated all our Venezuelan cacao farms in El Cacique del Cacao. Since then, we’ve mapped out a strategy to set an example to other producers, existing and/or potential, so they can see up close what is possible when suitable technology is applied in the field. El Cacique del Cacao is a great laboratory. We started to demonstrate that Criollo cacao trees are a real business, as they have been throughout the history of Venezuela. In order to find our future, we need to look at our roots.
My father, Ezequiel Amarista, who spent a lifetime working with Criollo cacao, helped and guided me to be able to carry out this project. El Cacique del Cacao was created to represent and commemorate the Venezuelan Criollo cacao. Our commitment is beyond the simple use of the best raw materials known in the world to manufacture our Artisana Organics Ek-Chok chocolate bar. Our intention is to make El Cacique del Cacao fundamental in the process of restoring the Venezuelan Criollo cacao to the threshold of importance in the world, both economically and socially. Those efforts will confirm that the Venezuelan Criollo cacao also has a profitable future in this country, a place that became known for its supreme cocoa long before it was known for its petroleum.
The experience of my grandfather and my father (cocoa farmers, agricultural technicians and cocoa researchers), coupled with their tenacity, helped us to know the Criollo cacao farm’s problems and solutions. This allowed us to integrate their rich and abundant knowledge as well as experiences with our new understanding of eco-farming and permaculture.
It is not known exactly when cocoa plantings began in Venezuela. Reportedly, the first wild plants of cacao and its fruit were found in northwestern Venezuela. There, indigenous peoples were using cocoa long before the Spanish arrived. The Cuicas from Trujillo, adjacent to Timotes from Merida, prepared and consumed a drink called “Chorote,” which was the product of toasted Criollo cacao that was ground between two stones and prepared in a cold infusion or in hot water, thus forming a paste.
The highlands of Venezuela are dominated by native peoples. These indigenous groups practiced agriculture based solely on the harvesting of fruits (Venturini, 1983), especially communities near rivers and streams. Cacao was transported in small boats from the remote forest to those places where they proceeded to remove the cacao beans, and later dried and sold it. These practices contributed to the spread of cocoa.
According to Father Alfonso de Zamora (1635-1717), boats from Spain and Nueva España came to Maracaibo in order to load cocoa and tobacco, because the region was fertile and full of cocoa plantations. Zamora said that wild Criollo cacao trees grew in the forests facing Lake Maracaibo.
Spanish priests and monks were the ones who spread and developed cocoa cultivation in the Andean foothills.
The Spaniards, once they colonized the territories and subjected indigenous people to work, started farming Criollo cacao throughout the western territory of the Captaincy General of Venezuela, extending the crop from the west to the Delta del Orinoco in the East. According to Villafañe (1833), Criollo cacao from Venezuela was considered the dearest in the world.
The first person to start cacao farming in our family was Diego de Vallenilla y Arana. In the year 1695 he created Hacienda Guayacan de las Flores to grow Criollo cacao, tobacco and coffee in what is today Carupano, Venezuela.
Since 1725, the Royal Guipuzcoana Cacao Co. monopolized the Venezuelan cacao sales. It created a cacao social cast by giving better prices to all the farmers born In Spain. They paid out less money for the cocoa to Spaniards born in Venezuela. Those Spaniards born in the Canarias Island or of mixed races received even less money for their product. As a result, those groups began engaging in illegal commercial activities by trading with French and British pirates, who in turn, paid a much fairer price for the Criollo cacao.
In the year 1747 Diego’s grandson, Joaquin Vallenilla y Gomez de Saa, created the Criollo cacao farm Hacienda Villa Bonita in El Rincon de Carupano Sucre Venezuela. By the year 1750, ships from France, Holland and England came to Carupano to illegally load cacao, literally transforming the eastern region of Venezuelan into what might be viewed as “buccaneer” territory.
In the year 1810 Joaquin’s great grandson, Jose Ramon Navarro Sanchez, founded Hacienda Aguas Calientes in El Pilar Sucre Venezuela. Cacao was the most important product from Venezuela, attracting Corsican merchant brokers to be middlemen between the new European chocolate companies and the Venezuelan Criollo cacao farmers.
In the year 1882 Jose Ramon’s great-grandson, Florencio Navarro Alcalas founded Hacienda Las Gracias, in El Pilar Sucre Venezuela. Several years later, his son, Jose Manuel Navarro Guiriz Sr. established Hacienda Villarruel in El Pilarin 1902. Twenty years later, my grandfather (Jose’s son), Jose Manuel Navarro Larez Jr., founded Hacienda Las Clavellinas.
Tragically, in 1933 a powerful hurricane destroyed nearly every farm in Sucre Venezuela. Two years later Jose Manuel Navarro Lares Guiriz Jr. founded Hacienda Santa Fe in San Vicente Sucre Venezuela. This was the first cacao farm that I worked on.
As mentioned earlier, in 1990 we consolidated all our farms in El Cacique del Cacao. By 2007 we started to export our own cacao production. In the year 2015 we produced our first chocolate bar with Criollo cacao from our farm. And the Artisana Organics Ek-Chok Chocolate bar was born.
Q&A with Criollo’s caretaker
John Panagotacos interviews Saul Amarista, founder and co-owner of Premier Organics
John Panagotacos: How many acres do you/Premier Organics own in Venezuela? Where are they and how much do they produce?
Saul Amarista: El Cacique del Cacao has 1,500 acres of land in Sucre Venezuela where we grow the only Criollo cacao in that region. We also have 400 acres of land in Sur del Lago Venezuela, the area where the Criollo cacao comes from.
JP: What is your long-term plan for farming and production?
SA: We have a long history of cacao farming. Our vision is preserve the cacao farm for the next generation of Venezuelan cacao farmers as well as to build on that legacy, setting an example for the highest quality standard cacao.
JP: Which relatives are doing the farming? How many people are doing the farming? How many growers?
SA: At the present time Ezequiel Amarista Navarro Jr., my brother, and Raquel Carolina Amarista Navarro, my sister, are handling the logistics in Venezuela. We have around 45 people working in our farm.
JP: What are you doing to help the local communities in Venezuela?
SA: This is too deep and complex a topic to answer easily in a few paragraphs. From the economic point of view, our farm workers receive an average salary that is five times greater than the minimum wage in Venezuela. This is possible because we have no middleman. We transform our Criollo cacao beans into Artisana Ek-Chok chocolate.
From an environmentalist point of view, we’re focused on preserving the natural habitat, sharing our mutual knowledge about wildlife throughout the community. This sharing helps natural preservation and extends not only awareness, but the feeling of responsibility and care in our community. Instructing everyone about the permaculture on our farms is an excellent way to improve farming economically and environmentally.
JP: What makes Venezuela’s biodiversity so diverse? Why is Venezuela’s Criollo cacao better than others?
SA: The word Criollo in Spanish means a native-born person. Because Criollo cacao was the cacao in the tropical Spanish colonies, the Spaniards called it Criollo. Forastero (Foreign) is the other variety of cacao and it is originally from Brazil, which was ruled by Portugal.
The Criollo cacao was highly appreciated by the natives who traded the beans for fish, salt, gold and feathers. The Venezuelan natives where great navigators. The Arawak and the Carib tribes eventually colonized and commercialized the Antilles and parts of Central America. In doing so, they brought with them their most valued treasure, Criollo cacao, which, in turn, was accepted by other pre-European civilization with the highest level of reverence.
At the time of the Spaniard conquest, cacao was growing wild throughout the Caribbean. This was the primordial cacao sold in the world until 1940. Venezuela was the largest cacao producer for many centuries and its Criollo cacao clearly the finest quality. Slightly less bitter, Venezuelan Criollo cacao reveals not only its beautiful chocolate flavor but also wonderful aroma. Today Venezuelan Criollo is still known as Maracaibo, the name of the port in northwest Venezuela from where it was shipped from.
The Criollo cacao is also known as Cacao Fino. Venezuela is the country with the greatest biodiversity of this species in the world. It is one of the rarest and most sought after cacaos. Its trees are very fragile and low yielding, demanding meticulous care in order to produce high quality chocolate. Yields are small and the Criollo cacao plant is less vigorous than the Forastero and is more susceptible to certain diseases.
We can trace the first shipments of Venezuelan cacao to Spain back to 1634 through documents. Since then, Venezuela has become one of the producers of the best and finest cacaos in the world. This cacao is used to produce high quality chocolates. The chocolate obtained with the Criollo cocoa resembles milk chocolate — it’s color being slightly brown — and has a pleasant nutty flavor.
Venezuela has many subspecies of this incredible cacao: Criollo Andino, Porcelana, Guasare, Pentagona and others. At the moment, less than 1% of cacao worldwide production is Criollo cacao.
As for the other cacao varieties, there’s Forastero cacao (Theobrama Cacao Sphaerocarpum). It originated in Brazil’s Amazon Basin and was exported to West Africa, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba. From West Africa, it was taken to East Africa and Southeast Asia. Forestero cacaos typically have a strong taste, tend to be bitter and lack aroma. They are, however, resistant to disease and produce high yields and prolific harvests. They comprise more than 94% of the world’s total cacao production.
Cacao Trinitario was developed by a Corsican entrepreneur on the island of Trinidad. It is a hybrid between Criollo and Forastero and makes up 6 percent of world’s cacao production. It is predominant in the Caribbean Antilles, Colombia and Central America.
JP: How did Premier Organics become the only organic Criollo cacao in Venezuela?
SA: I am the founder and co-owner of Premier Organics and its brand Artisana. We sell organic nut butter and seeds. I wanted to sell our own chocolate bar and I wanted that this premium chocolate was an organic product. In Venezuela there isn’t any institution or any organization that certifies products organic. So we decided to hire a respectable international organic certifier to work with us on our farm in Venezuela. That is the reason we are the only organic-certified Criollo cacao in Venezuela.
JP: Who inspects/selects the beans?
SA: At the present time my father Ezequiel Amarista Sr. is the person with the most knowledge about cacao in our farm. The responsibility of working in the inspection and selection of our Criollo cacao is my sister Zaidee Amarista Navarro.
JP: How did you get into cacao? What have you done to become an expert?
SA: I didn’t chose to get into cacao. Cacao was always part of my everyday life. I was blessed to be born in a long line of cacao farmers since the time of the first Spanish conquistador in Venezuela to our present time. We have been farming cacao farms for several generations. However, from my father’s side of the family, we have been trading cacao since the very first human beings appeared in the region.
As for being an expert of cacao... I still think that I have so much to learn about Criollo cacao. I hope that my skills and knowledge could grow enough to pass on a great legacy to the next generation of cacao farmers in Venezuela.