Plump, colorful fruit hang from stems. Large as melons, they seem somehow incongruous clinging to the trees, as if Picasso had somehow designed an orchard of long leaved trees and fat, over-sized fruit. Yet the scent when opened, and the taste, moves one into the world of Burroughs as it calls up sedate, up-scale chocolate shops and the riotousness of the jungle. Where else does something looking like cantaloupe taste like expensive chocolate.
The fruit is cacao. Seldom do chocoholics see, or even less taste the fruit–unless they make their way to the tropical plantations and a worker opens one with a machete’s slice and hands them a chunk. But it is one of the wonders in the process of making chocolate.
The gold, however, is not the fruit, but the large beans inside, about the size of big favas. When properly processed they become the marvel that is chocolate.
Though Cuzco has yet to be lined with chocolatiers offering their hand-made truffles (despite the important presence of the Choco Museo), it produces more cacao than any other part of Peru.
By Machu Picchu, where the fine coffees also grow, cacao moodily appears and hangs from trees. The cacao is of the aromatic variety and has a high fat content making it what is in high demand in the world of chocolate. But there are some important barriers to Cuzco’s cacao becoming known.
The fruit of the criollo trees and the chuncho variety produces wonderful beans. But it is still little known in the city where millions of tourists come on their way to Machu Picchu just above the cacao groves.
The first problem is that most producers are small-scale and there has been little outreach yet to help improve production and especially the care of the beans in the process of transforming them into sell-able products.
Secondly, most of the cacao produced here, and elsewhere in the country, is bought up by local chocolate companies which produce for the local market, instead of developing the product for international standards.
Nonetheless, Peruvian chocolate, whether a cup of hot chocolate made from Sol del Cusco or a Sublime candy bar from any of the many vendors of Cuzco’s streets, takes one into an important part of the life of the country.
Sublime, for example, has long been to Peru what Hershey’s bars are to the US or Cadbury to the UK. Though now owned and produced by the multinational Nestle, Sublime was a trademark belonging to the Peruvian D’onofrio company.
Founded by Italian immigrants to Peru in the late nineteenth century who wished to make and sell good ice cream in Lima, D’onofrio became one of the most important buyers of cacao and producers of chocolates in the country. In 1997 Nestle obtained D’onofrio but wisely decided to keep many of its trademarks and its name (in ice cream) as a means of maintaining some local connection with the company and its products.
Unless you can go to the area near Quillabamba or the hills and valleys below Machu Picchu to try cacao fruit, it is worth it, while visiting Cusco, to buy a Sublime bar on the street and visit Cafe Ayllu on either Almagro Street or the Marques Walking Mall to slowly sip a Cusqueñan hot chocolate.
You might also want to pay a visit to the Choco Museo, the Chocolate Museum) on the Plaza de Regocijo where you can learn all about cacao and chocolate, as well as try your hand at making chocolate from cacao beans.
Perhaps soon, Cuzco will appear on the world map of important chocolate regions with distinctive qualities. But, while that is in process, it already has a deep connection with Peru as a grower of cacao and a contributor to the kinds of chocolate Peruvians consume each day.
By the way, NPR recently reported on a search to find unique, wild varieties of cacao in the Peruvian Amazon where it is argued cacao originated.