Apr/May 2011 Travel

El Gran Cacao

by William Reese Hamilton

Photo by William Reese Hamilton

Photo by William Reese Hamilton

There was once a name for those who became rich farming chocolate beans in Venezuela—El Gran Cacao. And a few still aspire to this title today.

If you are lucky enough to be invited to the hacienda of our valley's Gran Cacao, you must drive up the mountain past Choroní, La Loma, La Soledad and El Mamón, turn left off the main road at the hotel, and descend to the abandoned hydroelectric plant by the river. There is no road across the river. They like it that way. You have to park the car, climb down the rocks, and cross over a footbridge of tree trunks. There you pass through the blue wrought-iron gate and climb the stone steps to the old house.

We are four couples, sitting out under a night sky in the great patio used for drying the cacao. It is some 20 meters across, with a rounded curb high enough to use for a seat or a backrest. On the other side, an old white niche with its Cruz de Mayo wrapped in many-colored crepe and a massive adobe wood-burning oven stand in relief against the dark forest of mijao, cedro, mamón and bamboo. Behind us ramble the 200-year-old buildings of the hacienda—discolored white walls, low wide corridors, decaying tile roofs, and deep inside a refrigerator filled with bottles of fine reds and whites.

The three-quarter moon is just rising out of the mountains to the east, so they shut down the house lights and bring out candles. A few thin clouds drift across Ursa Major. The house dog and three cats stretch out under the stars and sleep. Wine is poured into Mexican glass. Someone brings out some fine beef in an exquisite sauce. Our host declines. He has been a vegetarian since his operations.

Like most men obsessed, he is not at all reluctant to tell his story. When he first came to the hacienda, he says, it was the weekend house of a friend from Caracas. The friend was not very interested in the fact that this was also the last working cacao plantation in the valley. For him it was simply a quiet and exotic retreat. But the man was having trouble affording this luxury, so he invited his wealthier guest to come in as his partner. After all, he offered the means, and the hacienda was certainly big enough to be shared. As easily as that, our host had the contract drawn up and bought into a dream. For soon the place began to cast its spell over him. He saw the larger destiny. Everyone said he didn't know what he was getting into, but he moved ahead as if possessed. And since his friend did not share this dream, it was necessary to buy him out and proceed alone.

"They speak of mad dogs and Englishmen," he says, smiling proudly. "But I think a Venezuelan can also have this illness."

I am reminded of a slightly different version of this acquisition I have heard in the village. Choroní, like other small places, is rife with rumors. Perhaps his friend did not look at the contract with a good lawyer, they say. He was, after all, in the middle of a messy divorce. His wife was mad at him, perhaps with good reason. That is why she sold her share of the hacienda to his partner, to get back at her husband. He was a news correspondent and never good with finances. He didn't even have the money to pay her alimony. Now this original owner, who brought his friend into this hacienda and supposedly still owns a lesser share himself, is not allowed to set foot on this side of the river.

But the Gran Cacao's wife is firm in her loyalty.

"My husband is pouring his life into this place," she tells us. "You see how tired he is." In fact, he does look exhausted tonight, bleary-eyed, but he seems determined to tell us more before he retires.

"The world will take note of this cacao again, this great cacao of Venezuela," he says. "They will know it is the very best cacao on the planet."

"When we started, the hacienda was only producing tres fanegas, three 50 kilo bags a year," she says. I try to picture one of these huge sacks of cacao, but cannot. "This year we had twenty-six."

"Still nothing, but a start," he adds. "Only 20 of the original trees were left—the special Choroní cacao trees. The legendary cacao. We had 12 of them right here on our land. And we're growing new trees from their seed."

"How can you tell the great tree from the rest?" I ask.

"The fruit is pure white inside. No pink or purple. It takes time, of course. Five years before a tree even bears fruit. Five very careful years, guarding them against the fungus and the beetle."

He knows his cacao. He can tell you the history, going back to the Olmecs. When it was the favorite drink of the ruling classes—Teotihuacanos, Toltecs, Mayans, Aztecs, a few rich traders. Never drunk sweetened, but spiced, sometimes fermented. Cacao was so important to them, they used it for currency. It was one of the great gifts of the New World to the Old.

"And now we are making business with a great French company," she says.

"They wanted just to buy our chocolate and ship it to Europe," he continues. "But I want the chocolate made here. So they are now planning to build a factory in Maracay, with a museum for cacao and a cooking school to teach chefs how to prepare and use chocolate properly. Venezuelan chocolate."

One of the guests is a chocolate connoisseur. He has brought a large block of fine European chocolate as a gift to this gathering. A bit like coals to Newcastle, I'm thinking, ice to the Eskimo. The guest and his wife serve it up on a large, wooden carving board.

"Your competition," they say to their host, laughing as they chop the great block into edible chunks. He does not appear to be amused. "Would you care for a taste?" they ask.

"No, thank you," he answers curtly. "Anyhow, most chocolate you get is made with more than 70 percent shortening and less than 30 percent cacao. Only a very few exceptional chocolates reverse the ratio."

"The people here don't appreciate what he is doing," his wife says. "But, then, that is Venezuela."

He brings out a fistful of cigars and generously hands them out to the men. They have been specially made, he tells us, to his specifications. We light up in unison, our cigars glowing enthusiastically in the night. Even I, a smoker of far lesser brands, can tell these are special.

"Wonderful. Made here in Venezuela?"

"Oh, yes. They have good tobacco here. But the wrapper was not quite what I wished," he says.

"Where can you get such special cigars?" I ask.

"If I told you that, they would not be special."

We settle back, sip our wine, and look at the stars, which seem very close now without the house lights.

"He's had three operations since we came here," his wife tells us as he puffs pensively on his cigar. "Rectal cancer, a large part of his liver, and his intestine."

The woman sitting next to me in the dark leans close and whispers, "He had a beautiful place on Mustique, but he sold it when he had to make all those trips to his doctors in Europe."

The Gran Cacao rises and goes off to pace his corridors. His wife tells of her fear of his dying and leaving her to run this vast hacienda alone. Of his obsession with land. The sicker he became, the more land he was buying.

"As if he thought it would keep him alive," the woman next to me confides. "Buying up land like there was no bottom to the money." I see his cigar glowing near us in the dark again.

"His enemies use tercios," his wife says.


"Other parties. To spread rumors, create antagonism in the village. To make it seem all the negative information about him does not come from a single source. That newsman is good at that. We found them once passing out leaflets about how my husband was cutting down trees in the rain forest. That is against the law in the Henry Pittier Park. And, yes, we have to cut a few sick old trees, but we replace them with new shade trees. Cacao needs shade, you know."

He sits down beside us on the ground again, leans back against the concrete curb.

"I used to think, well, it's natural they should hate me," he muses. "To resist this white man, to be suspicious. After all, we are talking about people descended from slaves. Why should they want to do things the way their masters did? The few campesinos I bought out here were not really landowners, you know. They just came onto my land to plant canucos of banana and platano, build little huts. A little plot here, a little shack there. Invasions of the old haciendas. I pay them twice the going rate for their crops and land. But still they resist me."

"One week they came here and wrecked this place," his wife says. "When we were in Caracas."

"The local police are no help in such matters. They tell us, who knows, anyone could have done it. They ask around but learn nothing. They don't wish to upset these people, who are their family and friends."

"You have to get the Guardia Nacional here," she says.

"Of course, we don't agree with their methods. As civilized people, we can't condone what they do. But it's what these people understand."

"What do you mean exactly?" I ask.

"I have witnessed their methods," he says. "There was a Guardia down at the beach, drunk and out of uniform. He got into a fight and pulled a knife. But the ones who were against him were the ones who were punished. The Guardia strung them up and whipped them."

"With machetes," she says. Only the flat side of the blade, I'm hoping.

"I know some people," he says. "So I asked the Guardia to look into this little vandalism. After all, this couldn't be allowed. It turned out to be two boys, the children of people who work for us. It took the Guardia only a few minutes and the boys were weeping. They didn't even have to touch them. They confessed to everything."

"It seems barbaric," she says. "But it's all these people understand."

"Nobody will bother us here anymore. I never carry a gun like that Englishman up the road. That only gets him into fights. I want them to know I'm not afraid of them. We can sleep here with the doors wide open now."

I'm suddenly reminded of a time long ago when Marisol and I were looking for our first apartment in New York's Little Italy, just around the corner from Umberto's Clamhouse where Joey Gallo was gunned down. You can leave your windows open here, the landlord told us. No one will bother you here. Cadillacs patrol the streets at night.

"These people have to learn," the Gran Cacao tells us warmly, just before he retires. Then with an ironic smile, "I have only begun my reign of terror."

It is late, and our host must rise early to meet someone important in the morning. We file quietly down the stone steps, past the iron gate and back across the log bridge. We cannot see the river, but we can hear the rush of the dark waters below.


Previous Piece Next Piece