Quality Cacao, Conservation, Nature? Visit the Taboquinhas Cacao-forests!

Drying cacao beans on the roof

 

Osvaldo.

On a recent cacao inspired journey to beloved Brazil this past May, I had the opportunity to visit Fazenda Taboquinhas. There I met Osvaldo de Brito, owner and farmer. I found a gracious host with a lively and generous spirit. He and his wife Laura welcomed me like family, with food, warmth, and hospitality. We had many laughs as I had to relearn Portuguese while he did satisfy my unquenchable desire for information about his work, restoring the cacao farm.

An introduction through the craft chocolate movement.

As a passionate chocophile, I came to Brazil to participate in the first ever Brazil Bean-to-Bar Week in Sao Paulo (May 2018), followed by a tour along cacao farms in Bahia with a delegation of US chocolate makers and enthusiasts. The event was host to a new movement of Brazilian craft “bean-to-bar” and “tree-to-bar” chocolate makers who are working at an artisanal scale to produce exceptional quality chocolate while helping building higher value markets for farmers.

On the Sao Paulo gathering I met Luiza Santiago of Kalāpa – Chocolate Sensorial out of Minas Gerais, who was vending her chocolate bars made from a recently harvested batch of cacao from Fazenda Taboquinhas. She blended Osvaldo’s cacao with lemon, lavender, sea salt to make creative and delicious concoctions. Luiza told me about the farm and soon thereafter Osvaldo invited me out for a visit.

 

Fazenda Taboquinhas is just across the Contas River from the town of Taboquinhas.  It’s a 40-minute bus ride away from the popular surf town of Iticaré in southern Bahia.  Osvaldo met me at the bus stop in the village and we wheelbarrowed my luggage to the barge to cross the river. Laura set me up in the bunkhouse, where I had a mesmerizing view of the river and the town of Taboquinhas on the hillside across.

Cacao farming.

Fazenda Taboquinhas has 18 hectares of cacao groves grown in the shade of the rainforest canopy, part of a sprawling “chocolate forest” along the river valley. This is the typical “cabruca” style of agroforestry farming in Bahia, in which the large shade trees are retained along with other ecological features of the original Atlantic Rainforest. Over the centuries, these shade grown cacao plantations in Bahia have preserved some of the last remnants of Atlantic Rainforest habitat, which once covered the entire Atlantic Coast of Brazil (only 2-6% left).

 

Osvaldo is newly restoring this cacao farm, which, like so many others in the region, fell prey to the witch’s broom fungus that was introduced to the region in 1989, and has since devastated the cacao economy in Bahia. Fortunately, after several decades, new generations of farmers with new and better information and resources are restoring the cacao groves and revitalizing Brazilian chocolate.

 

Fazenda Taboquinhas, along with neighboring Fazenda Pura Vida, is part of the Povos da Mata Agroecology Network, an innovative participatory organic certification program for small producers. By incorporating agro-forestry practices, these farmers are creating diversified, resilient farms while protecting rainforest habitat.

Cacao production.

Osvaldo is producing micro-lots of high-quality cacao alongside the bulk commodity cacao beans that command the market.  By focusing on quality and fine flavor, he hopes to fetch better prices from the premium and craft chocolate makers who are part of the growing craft chocolate movement in Brazil and abroad.

 

One morning, Osvaldo walked me through his process of separating quality cacao from bulk, or commodity cacao, during harvest. Starting with harvest, then inspecting the pods; then looking at the quality of the pulp inside. It’s easy to see the difference between the brown spectacled lower quality bulk cacao and the slippery white quality cacao. He learns these techniques through training from the Center for Cacao Innovation in Ilheus, a new training, and food lab facility focussed on improving cacao quality.

 

Once harvested, the beans are fermented, a crucial step where the natural yeasts, microbes, and sugar alcohols ‘cook’ the pulp and create the chemical elements that become chocolate flavor. The next step is drying, for which careful consideration must be paid to the rain and weather, not easy to do in the tropical climate. The sliding roof on the drying deck needs constant adjustment.

Fazenda Pura Vida.

Osvaldo took me over to Fazenda Pura Vida,  a community permaculture farm a few miles upriver. We paddled across the river to access the cacao groves and facilities on the other side (no road access) and then helped them bring their cacao to market. It’s a bit of a process: down the chute from the drying deck into the packing house, loaded onto the donkey, down the trail, loaded onto the skiff, paddled across the river, weighed and loaded onto Osvaldo’s truck, then brought to the buying station in town where they paid the going commodity price. Jim Wallace, the German farm manager, appreciated the help and it was refreshing to have a moment to speak English and learn about their farm.

Outdoor paradise.

Fazenda Taboquinhas is beautifully situated along the Contas River, with easy access to nature activities and scenic beauty. Throughout my stay, I had ample opportunity to kayak on the river, swim on the beach, and eat plenty of cacao and fruit from the farm.

One day, Osvaldo led me on a long hike through the “chocolate forest” to majestic waterfalls surrounded by cacao, down country roads through the cacao country, and along the fast flowing river. We found a sparkling swimming hole to cool off in, jumped off cliffs (small ones), stopped by several rapids, and watched the river rafters jump off the taller cliffs on the other side of the canyon.

Farewell.

On my last day at Fazenda Taboquinhas, Laura prepared a huge feast.  Joined by other visitors and friends, including a former work stay volunteer from Chile and her family, it was a lovely day.  We ate, laughed, and swam in the river. Osvaldo led the group to one last jump in the waterfall near town – its hard not to catch his playfulness and enthusiasm – and then I caught a late afternoon bus back to Itacaré.

Concluded.

Great memories of an epic and memorable week at Fazenda Taboquinhas. Portuguese language immersion, cacao learning deep dive, and outdoor adventures. It’s inspiring to see the care being poured into the stewardship of the land, forests, and cacao of beautiful Bahia. My love for this land grows deeper.  

I am hopeful that small organic farmers like Osvaldo, his neighbors, and producers of the Povos da Mata Network can tap into the market opportunities for high-quality, organic, ecologically regenerative cacao. With the help of new local institutions and markets, the cacao economy of Bahia can, and is, being revived, along with the conservation of the Atlantic Rainforest.  

Osvaldo tells me cacao samples are in the mail and I look forward to making a batch of home chocolate and sharing stories of Bahia and the chocolate forests of Brazil.

Click the blue link to read more about my sustainability initiatives.

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