If I’m not eating chocolate, I’m writing about it. (But, to be honest, it’s usually both.)
Just like many of our readers, chocolate is a huge part of what we do. That’s not a surprise, since chocolate is a huge part of the U.S. and global confectionery markets. Data from IRI, a Chicago-based research firm, put the total U.S. chocolate market at $14.2 billion at the end of March, compared to the $8.2 billion non-chocolate candy market.
There are many things that go with chocolate — sourcing, processing and sustainability, which is getting a lot of attention inside and outside of the industry. These are topics Candy Industry covers day in and day out.
Yet I still didn’t have a solid grasp of how cocoa is grown and harvested, nor how many logistical and manufacturing challenges must be overcome to turn fruit into the treat we know and love.
That all changed in February when I visited Finca El Cacao, a 2,500-hectare cocoa plantation in Nicaragua owned and operated by Alfred Ritter GmbH & Co. KG. The company, eager to open up its supply chain and highlight its progress in the Central American country, brought German journalists and me to the plantation to show us how they do things.
Simply put, it was life-changing.
The finca — Spanish for country estate — has to be the closest I’ll ever get to the Garden of Eden. Cacao trees are beautiful in their own right, but Ritter employs an agroforestry system that keeps much of the surrounding natural landscape in place. Plus, the company plants banana, guava and other types of trees to shade the cacao, adding to the beauty.
And not much compares to holding a waxy, weighty cocoa pod in your hand. I didn’t know if I’d get a chance to see a pod in person, let alone hold one of the deep red or fire-orange gems common at El Cacao. The only way to top it was tasting the pulp fresh from a split pod — a bucket-list experience for sure.
But most importantly, the visit gave me a deeper appreciation for the skills and knowledge required to cultivate cacao. It also put faces to the farmers who possess these skills and rely on cacao for their livelihoods. Now I think about that before I pop a piece of chocolate into my mouth.
I’m grateful to Ritter for this opportunity. Not only will it inform my work for Candy Industry (a special report on the finca appears in our May issue), it also helped me grow as a person. I hope others in the industry have a chance to see cacao at the source, if they haven’t already.
It’s one sweet experience.