Changing chocolate for good

A wild chocolate adventure

Nick Johns-WickbergComment

Chocolutionary Ruairidh Wilkinson is exploring the jungles of South America. He’s on a mission to protect endangered wild cacao trees and, eventually, use their beans to make some of the most amazing chocolate we’ll ever taste. Here’s his first report:

This journey began in the Chocolution chocolate factory in southeast Kent, and will take me as far as the wild cacao groves of northern Bolivia. There, I intend to prepare some samples of cacao beans, to explore their potential as the base ingredient for an exquisite, never-before-tasted chocolate.

The rainforests of Pando, the northernmost region of Bolivia, have excited the interest of researchers from the botanical institute based at Kew Gardens in west London, not only because of their richness and diversity, but also, sadly, because they are endangered.

Encroaching soya plantations threaten to demolish them, and at this unprecedented point in history, in order to save the ecologies upon which we all depend, globally, it has become necessary to explore them, to study them, and ultimately, and paradoxically, to exploit them.

If the value of these forests can be proved by the monetary standards of contemporary governmental and corporate institutions, then they will be afforded a higher degree of legal protection – so determines the overriding logic of our times.

If a sufficient number of non-timber forest products can be extracted from the forest, then they might be granted protection from the fires and chainsaws and the expanses of monoculture which threaten them.

The irony of this current relationship between humanity and the ancient, vast and previously untameable wilds of the Amazon may well surpass all measures of absurdity. However, such is the reality we all share.

Though it troubles me greatly that the value of nature has come to be so inextricably linked to economic factors, I have been convinced that this project has a role in saving the rainforests of Pando from permanent destruction.

If the local variety of wild cacao proves to make the exquisite chocolate that we expect it will, the project will also offer work to local people, who currently rely almost exclusively on the Brazil nut harvest for an income, which lasts only three months of the year. The harvesting and processing of wild cacao will provide a year-round income.

As for myself, I am an artist, writer and chocolatier, and this journey is a dream come true for me. I will be returning to the evolutionary home of the plant which has provided my own principal source of income for the past few years.

I will need to seek the assistance of Kew's associates in the region, not least since my practical knowledge of the primary processing of cacao is currently limited to the time I spent living on a cacao plantation in northern Peru several years ago. I will need to learn more about the particularities of harvesting, fermenting and drying cacao, before I venture deep into the Amazon rainforest in search of wild growing Theobroma Cacao.

 Ruairidh making chocolate by hand on a previous adventure to South America.

Ruairidh making chocolate by hand on a previous adventure to South America.

So far, the journey has been a magical adventure. I hitch-hiked first from England to Switzerland – another historic centre of chocolate production – where I met up with my girlfriend Sonja, who is joining me on the trip. We then hitch-hiked to Madrid, where we caught a flight to Gran Canaria, from where we boarded a ship bound for Brazil.

It was a repositioning cruise ship, which had completed its season carrying tourists around the Mediterranean and was relocating to coastal Brazil, where the cruise season has just begun. This makes it a cheap way to cross the Atlantic. Much cheaper than a flight, at least, and certainly much more enjoyable, but doubtfully more eco-friendly. However, the ship would be relocating anyway, passengers or no. The ship Sovereign usually completes this journey empty of passengers. However, the operator, Pullmantur, had decided to offer the journey as a budget cruise.

We were utterly spoilt. Budget travellers from all over the world were on-board, even though most of us would have preferred to find a sailing boat to carry us across. However, sailboat hitch-hiking is a challenging and slow adventure, and we feel the pressures of time. I am happy to have made the compromise, if only to witness the surreal spectacle of artfully ragged travellers and street performers and suchlike being served three-course meals by tuxedoed waiters in the lavish dining halls. It was a wonderful 11 days, with plenty of time for us all to share our stories and our dreams as we relaxed between the azure skies and lapis oceans.

We are now in Sao Paulo staying with John and Kelly, who are friends of Chocolution founder Kieran Renihan. It was here that an important part of our chocolatey journey began. This is where Kieran was first inspired to become a chocolate maker and chocolatier, many years ago now, when he was teaching geography at a local school and learning about the origin of chocolate as a nourishing food and sacred medicine.

The scene above, painted on tiles on a wall in Salvador de Bahia, depicts a cacao harvest, and important aspect of local history. Chocolate is a part of the cruel past of the region of northern Brazil, where people from West Africa had been bonded in some of the worst conditions of slavery ever known, to work the plantations of sugar, coffee and cacao.

I’ll be keeping you updated as Sonja and I make our way towards our destination in Bolivia. There’s plenty to be learnt along the way and, with the opportunity to make unique chocolate at the end of our journey, plenty to look forward to.

Viva la Chocolution!