Xoco trip to Honduras: a project to save fine cocoa
Tuesday 28th February 2012
A group of chocolate producers, chocolatiers and experts were recently invited by Xoco to visit their project in Honduras. I was privileged enough to be amongst that group. Xoco has the goal of producing the best flavoured cocoa beans in the world by selecting the finest cocoa trees and reproducing them. It’s an initiative that will hopefully go a long way to addressing the huge problems that currently face the cocoa growing industry, such as generations of farmers moving away from growing cocoa due to the low price they’re paid for beans and that the temperatures in the Ivory Coast and Ghana - the biggest cocoa producing regions - are set to rise, which affects the viability of growing crops.
We flew into the capital of Honduras, San Pedro Sula where Xoco’s offices are and on the first day visited one of Xoco’s partner farms in the Copan district, south of the city. Xoco sells their young trees to local farmers in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. After a three-hour bus journey we all transferred to off-road vehicles and then finished the journey on foot to be greeted by a cocoa farmer and his beautiful trees, each with deep red, almost purple cocoa pods. It’s incredible to see chocolate starting its long journey from a small budding flower to a pod filled with pulp and cocoa beans.
All of the trees in this plantation are a specific variety of criollo, which Xoco has named Mayan Red. The farmer purchased saplings from Xoco three years ago and already had trees with ripe pods. Xoco has been with him every step of the way, he receives monthly visits from a representative who guides him on looking after the plants and pods, keeping them disease and pest free. When they’re ready, Xoco guarantees to buy the ripe beans from the farmer at one and a half times the NY stock exchange price. It’s a reassuring deal for the farmer in an industry where they are moving away from growing cocoa.
We then visited the Copan ancient Mayan ruins, a trip which put into perspective the heritage of this area in growing cocoa. It was fascinating to see where the Mayans had lived and experience how they consumed cocoa, with a cocoa bean drink which we tasted over a chocolate-themed lunch at a local hacienda.
The next day we visited one of Xoco’s nurseries, the heart of the operation where the regrafting takes place and the young trees are grown. We all attempted to regraft heritage cocoa trees onto new roots – the tree then grows with the exact DNA of the heritage variety.
Next was a trip to Xoco’s offices where their lab is located and where they carry out all the fermentation and drying. Frank Homann the MD gave us a presentation of Xoco’s work and we carried out the first of three liquor (cocoa in its rawest form en.wikipedia.org/Chocolate_liquor) tastings, sampling Xoco varieties which had undergone different fermentation and drying techniques to establish how those affect the flavour.
Then it was off to the airport for a short plane ride to Guanaja, the island where Columbus’s men first encountered cocoa beans. We stayed at Graham’s Place, an idyllic hotel on its own tiny island in Guanaja Bay. That afternoon we took a boat ride to Soldier’s Beach, the exact spot where Columbus’s men landed all those years ago. We planted a cocoa tree, a heritage tree found near the Copan ruins, in a symbolic gesture to bring fine cocoa back to Mesoamerica. 99% of trees in Central and South America are bulk production and as Frank says ‘If you want fine cocoa the first thing you have to have is a fine bean’. He has carefully selected varieties that are almost extinct for his project and will have two and a half million trees by next year.
The next day we all took part in a conference on Direct Cacao, a new initiative to raise awareness for where the beans that make your bar of chocolate are grown and to work towards paying farmers a fair price. The project has been initiated by Martin Christy of http://www.seventypercent.com and you’ll be hearing more in later blog posts.
That evening it was time to relax and have a bit of fun. Maricel Presilla, author of The New Taste of Chocolate had prepared a feast for us, we ate local barbecued fish under the stars and spent the evening drinking rum from coconut husks. A great end to an incredible trip. Huge thanks to Frank Homann of http://www.xocogourmet.com for hosting, a man who could well be the savior of fine cocoa growing.