By Renate Strub, Epicure & Culture Contributor
“Bienvenidos a la Casa del Cacao. Welcome to the House of Cacao,” said the smiling young hostess. “Today we can offer you a cup of hot chocolate, or a cup of cold chocolate.”
We had just arrived in Baracoa, touted as Cuba’s capital of chocolate. It was a hot afternoon, in the low 90’s. As I stood there sweating through my clothing, I asked myself: Would a cup of chocolate be the ideal drink just now?
My two companions got a cold beer from the bar in the backroom, but since I love to sample local food and beverages wherever I go, I went for the cup of cold chocolate. And was I glad I did. It was easily the best cold chocolate drink I had ever tasted — thick and smooth, ice cold and refreshing, full of intense flavor, not too sweet, and truly exquisite.
The cafe, cool with its high ceilings and tiled floor, is an interesting place to visit. Paintings by local artists line the walls, while glass vitrines display the history of cacao and its importance in the Baracoa region. That afternoon set the mood for my visit to a cacao farm the next day.
How Cuban Chocolate Is Made
The cacao produced in the Baracoa area is of such high quality that the world-renowned Swiss chocolatier Spruengli has added a line of truffles, two chocolate bars and assorted Neapolitans made with Baracoa cacao. If Spruengli is promoting Cuban chocolate, then it must be good. Baracoa, on the eastern-most tip of Cuba, is the largest producer of cacao in Cuba.
At 8:30am sharp the next morning, our local guide Jose picked us up in his four-wheel-drive for a tour of a cacao farm. Frequent rainfalls make Baracoa an ideal region for farmers to grow cacao on the cool mountain slopes. After driving through open fields, we made a turn on a dirt road, climbed a mountain and pulled into a non-descriptive small gate.
We started our tour by looking at some cacao trees loaded with mature, rough-skinned cacao pods. A pod contains from 20 to 50 beans, and about 400 are needed for one pound of chocolate. Next, Jose took us through the whole production process. He cut open the hard cacao pod with a machete, revealing the cacao beans encased in a soft fruity pulp.
The pulp is spread out on grates for several days until it ferments and liquefies, leaving only the beans — an important step that cannot be rushed as it determines the quality of the beans. After the fermentation process, the beans are dried for several days in the sun. Then, they are roasted in an iron pot over an open flame, cracked and shelled. The length and temperature of the roasting process also affect the resulting product. A low-temperature roast produces a tarter, aromatic flavor.
The last step involves grinding the beans into a thick, creamy paste. This cacao paste is rolled into balls of about three inches in diameter and folded in aluminum foil. They are now ready to be shipped to the end producer for further processing and refinement.
There’s no high-tech machinery on the farm, just traditional farming methods. But what Cubans lack in technology, they make up in resourcefulness and ingenuity.
We left the farm after two hours and headed back to the city. I knew exactly what I’d be doing that afternoon. I returned to the local Casa del Cacao for another delicious cup of chocolate.If you love #chocolate, you must take a trip to this wonderful place in #Cuba. Check it out. Click To Tweet
Notes On Responsible Tourism In Cuba
Of course, we can’t end a post on culinary travel in Cuba without touching on responsible tourism.
Cuba’s Rationing System
According to Evan Berquist, Cuba expert and attorney for Cozen O’Connor, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to visit Cuba and consume foods without detracting from the food supply available for Cuba’s rationing system. Right now, Cuba’s economy (including its food sector) operates on two separate tracks: one private market where goods are purchased with convertible Cuban pesos, catering mostly to international visitors; and another rationed market, where goods are purchased with non-exchangeable Cuban pesos or ration cards known as libretas de abastecimiento (literally, supply booklets). Most Cubans get the majority of their food from this libreta system.
How one views responsible tourism in Cuba will largely depend on how one views the changes taking place in Cuba’s economy. If you accept that Cuba has a limited amount of sugar, it is easy to see how production of chocolate for tourism subtracts from the available sugar supply in Cuba’s ration economy. On the other hand, if you believe that Cuba will eventually move to an open market, you may view private sector growth as potentially accelerating this movement, according to Berquist.
The Public Sector: Two Views
Berquist notes that the aim of U.S. policy toward Cuba is to support private sector growth while minimizing the revenue that goes to the regime. “The working theory is that by empowering entrepreneurs, you help develop the sort of economic culture that promotes healthy change on the island.” But Berquist cautions that the pace and continued progress of market reforms are far from certain. “The regime may continue to maintain tight control over the economy, perhaps indefinitely. In that case, the divide between the private economy and the state-controlled sector would continue to widen.”
Going Local In Cuba
Sucheta Rawal of Go Eat Give, a nonprofit focused on promoting cross-cultural understanding through service and travel, recommends making your trip more responsible by visiting paladares, restaurants in people’s homes.
“They are more expensive — $15-25 for a 3-course dinner — than government run restaurants, but you are also helping a local family with their home enterprise.”
She also notes that tourists looking to buy Cuba’s famous cigars should skip the well-known factories and instead visit the farms where the tobacco is grown to meet with the farmers. You’ll get fresh-rolled cigars for a fraction of the cost.
Lastly, Go Eat Give works with a local organic cooperative farm in Alamar where you can actually see what is locally grown (and volunteer if you wish).
“The 100 or so farmer families sell fresh produce, pickles, jellies and more to locals, as well as area restaurants. This is one of the few farms where you know that the income is being divided by the Cubans and a majority share is not going to the government.”
Have you tried Cuban chocolate? Any thoughts on responsible tourism in Cuba? Please share in the comments below!
Getting There: There are five weekly flights from Havana. Most are fully booked, so make sure you make reservations well in advance. There is also a bus service from Santiago de Cuba, or you can rent a car. Roads are in good condition, but signs are few and far between — you might have to stop and ask for directions, and the occasional U-turn is part of the fun. That said, tourists, including non-Spanish speaking, tend to find their way there.
Tours: Cubatour and Ecotur have offices on Plaza Independencia. Our excellent private tour guide was Jose Angel Delfino Perez. You can reach Jose at Tel. 64-13-67, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Stay: The best-known hotel is El Castillo, a former fort located on a hill overlooking Baracoa and the surrounding areas. For information about the popular Casas Particulares (privately-owned homes where tourists can rent rooms with private baths) click here.
Baracoa Chocolate: You will find Casa del Cacao on Antonio Maceo, between Maravi and Frank Pais, a couple of blocks from the Plaza Independencia. No phone number is available, but just ask for directions and someone will gladly direct you to the right place.
Travel Safety Essentials: Never leave home without Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments (so thieves never know you’re carrying cash) or a ROBOCOPP Personal Grenade Alarm ($6 off with code ‘JOURNEY10’).
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