(This article is double listed from cocoa content to open discussion about this subject.)
Chuao is one of those places we’ve all heard about but never visited. It’s a remote coastal village in northern Venezuelan flanked by lush rain forests, lofty mountains, and the sparkling Caribbean Sea, and inhabited by a people that may seem trapped in time. Indeed, Chuao has an illustrious and romantic history that still can be witnessed, in a sense, just by looking at pictures of cacao fermentation or, better yet, tasting a bar of chocolate produced from its beans.
Currently, only two makers produce Chuao bars: Amedei and Bonnat. I’ve tried three others in the past, but none of them were nearly as good as those just mentioned. Pralus, Valrhona, and surprisingly Marcolini have all offered their interpretations, but for limited times and with limited success.
You may have heard that Amedei has exclusive rights to all of Chuao’s outputs, yet when you load a page on Chocosphere or another online store, you’ll see that Bonnat has a Chuao bar as well. “How insidious!” you may exclaim. “How can Amedei blatantly lie in front of our faces, claiming to have exclusive rights to Chuao’s cacao?” Well, they really didn’t lie at all; it seems that perhaps they only revealed as much of the truth they wanted you, the gullible consumer, to know.
Well, this is an issue I’ve been trying to resolve at least partially for quite some time. I poked around a little on the Internet and found some pretty nifty information that sheds quite a bit of light on the situation. Although a definitive answer hasn’t been unearthed through my research, a lot of insinuations have definitely arisen.
You see, Chuao is not only the name of a plantation but also the name of the valley in which the plantation is situated. The Chuao Plantation belongs to the Chuao Farm Workers Company, which consists of 40 partners who collectively share a provisional deed for the approximate 200 hectares (500 acres) of land. Currently, Amedei has domain to only 140 hectares (350 acres), which leaves a difference of 60 hectares (150 acres) on which to produce and ultimately source cacao. This means that Amedei’s rights to cacao produced in Chuao is limited to only 70% instead of the exclusive ownership the company boasts.
It’s also worth mentioning that Chuao is a cooperative, and as such, it contains a constituency of members who supply produce and labor for the social and economic sustainability of the cooperative. But with this situation, there are no rules and regulations as to who joins and who does not. There is no dictator forcing growers to join. For example, Conacado, a cooperative in the Dominican Republic, only accounts for 25% of the nation’s cacao. The rest comes elsewhere. This means that while Amedei sources exclusively from the cooperative, there could be other growers in Chuao from which a company could source. So technically, and legally, cacao sold outside of the cooperative is still considered Chuao. Such a scenario certainly lends credence to Bonnat’s ability to produce a chocolate with the Chuao appellation. It seems there are plenty of farmers who are willing to sell.
This all sounds fine and dandy, right? Maybe. I still wasn’t convinced that any of this speculation held a lot of weight, since after all, it was purely conjecture. After all, when dealing with touchy matters, one can have the rug pulled from under his feet at any moment, or have his hand slapped really hard by a really big boy. I have to tread carefully here. So, I E-mailed Stéphane Bonnat.
Out of respect to Mr. Bonnat, I won’t reveal too much of what transpired in that string of E-mails, but I will certainly reveal to you some key tidbits of information. First of all, it was said that President Chavez is actually opposed to the idea of exclusive rights. If that’s the case, then does this not support the idea of Amedei purchasing strictly from the cooperative, since after all, a cooperative can pick and choose its customers? This brings us to the next point.
Mr. Bonnat confirmed my suspicion that not all of Chuao’s farmers are involved in the association. Although he didn’t follow that comment with another remark, one can certainly draw some inferences as to what he was implying. Point taken, Mr. Bonnat. For now, I’m happy with what I have so far, but I still feel that some things need to be clarified with extenuating evidence, perhaps from a nonpartisan source rather than a producer of the chocolate. Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Bonnat was extremely helpful and gracious, but it’s that unbiased voice that will thrust this confusion into an edifying light.
Besides, we all know something is up between Amedei and Bonnat, and that one of them is sourcing their cacao from a source we don’t know about, or at best are relatively unfamiliar with. The regulations that influence these designations and sourcing practices do seem a bit hazy and obscure, but no lawsuits have been filed and no one has appeared in court yet. So, it seems that everything is actually legitimate, or that someone is awfully resourceful.