My travels are more than the construction of a supply chain.

They aim to go to the roots of cocoa in its land of origin and select plants, get to know the people who work them, and share with them the secrets and history of each plant, saving cocoa varieties from the extinction to which the world industry had destined them.

In this way, each cocoa bean is a protected creature cared for with expertise and passion.

Thus, you get to have the Mata Atlantica‘s Monovarietal Chocolate in Purity.

The five senses of the Atlantic Mata
A journey to discover and save white cocoa

I have always heard about Biodiversity, Ecosystem, integrated economy, globalization, of, of, of.

In this travelogue presentation we could dive into the deeper meaning of some of the most commonly used vocabulary words of the moment.

Departing from Malpensa with destination Ilhéus, an important town in the Bahia region on the east coast of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, my thoughts could have gone to the carnival in Rio, the persuasive and bursting Brazilian girls, the carioca music, and the folkloric colors of the local people.

Instead, my goal was the discovery of a very rare Amazonian variety of white cocoa, which according to information given to me by my friend Nicolas, (a young French cocoa producer) could be found in the northwest area of Mata Atlantica.

On this second trip to the source of cocoa, in addition to my wife Mery, I thought I would bring along two very special traveling companions.

Photographer Giancarlo Bononi and cinematographer Federico Bondi.

the purpose was to document and capture some very interesting aspects of the world of cocoa, the colors and sounds of those places so far away from us but so present in our “cuddly” moments.

After 14 hours of travel, one stop in London and one in Salvador de Bahia for a connecting flight, we landed at “Da Costa ” airport in Ilhéus at 5 a.m.

The temperature was 25 degrees.

Waiting for us was Nicolas, a very young Frenchman who moved to Brazil because of his great passion for the world of cocoa and who on this trip proved to be a veritable mine of expertise and solutions.

There is very little time: in four days we have to reach the goal, to select those varieties worthy of creating single-plant and single-varietal chocolates.

The first stop takes us to meet Edoardo, the rector of the local Scientific University, who in addition to his university profession is also the owner with his wife Luciana Tacconi da Costa, of a 500-hectare cocoa fazenda.

The arrival is exciting.

An enchanting valley opens before us.

Beyond the palm trees is a glimpse of a lake and all around a hill with the cocoa processing facility to the right and to the left, slightly higher up, the farmhouse, which for them more townspeople than farmers serves mainly as a country home for weekend parties.

With us came the operators of TV Il Globo informed of my arrival; my role on this trip is twofold: as president of theNational Association of Confartigianato Chocolatiers, and as an entrepreneur seeking new frontiers of taste.

Therefore, my presence sparked interest in a story and  an interview.

The visit to the fazenda plantations was positive.

Agricultural production is certainly of excellent quality.

The only shortcoming encountered was the lack of knowledge or perhaps total ignorance of the purpose that cocoa has.

I am referring to the little consideration given to the quality and importance of the post-harvest stages, which influence and sometimes destroy the effect of the treatments had in the field.

To my question as to why this neglect, the answer was unanimous: all agreed that dry cocoa is sold to three large groups but especially to Cargil, which is not only unwilling to pay more for a well-processed product but has even banned the cultivation of that prized White cotyledon Albino cocoa because it is defined as ugly to look at; the consequence is the disappearance of this variety from plantations.

For reasons of heat, chocolate is not processed in these places, and those who do get barely sufficient results; the only production rationale is the yield in tons, given by the varieties resistant to the “Vassura de Bruxia,” the deadly fungus that decimated Brazilian plantations in 1981, and which today, thanks to studies by the science center CEPAC is about to be eradicated.

On the second day Nicolas takes us to visit his Fazenda, which might look like the valley of Eden, with the ever-present lake with ducks and mallards, an expanse of coconut palms and banana trees; on the ridge of the hill stands Nicolas’s house, a splendid example of bio-architecture, built entirely of wood, reed, hemp and giant bamboo canes.

Walls are plastered with dried clay and the same bricks made on site by fazenda workers, electricity is generated with a wind generator, water pumped from the spring in a castle of holding vessels.

But our primary interest takes us to visit its plantations, Nicolas takes us through a cultivation of rubber plants ready to be engraved, we descend a ridge covered with plants of considerable height such as Cagiamanga, the Abara, Carnauba and Angico, under which the Platanus or Banana tree as it may be protects the precious cocoa plants.

We immediately notice that they are all numbered, and depending on the exposure, the bands change color; there are few fruits on the plants this season: this is the period when they vegetate, so there are notable new leaflets dyeing the foliage of the plants red, alternating between a vast number of tiny flowers and surviving 

fruits with new and old leaves.

This is a plantation of Forastero, which although vituperated by a classifying fashion, enjoys excellent health and admirably cared for gives rise to a remarkably textured, distinctly fragrant cocoa, with a very high percentage of cocoa butter and marked color.

Add to this the passion Nicolas has passed on to his boys, and the result is amazing.

At one point we meet workers who are clearing an area that was recently purchased and still needs to be cataloged and reorganized from a water drainage standpoint; we discover that those plants now abandoned for years are of the variety Scavina, with a very pleasant fruity fragrance and large brown-red beans.

On our way back from the plantation, we transport in wicker panniers on mule backs the kabobs collected in the fazenda.

With our friend Nicolas, we then proceeded to “decabossage,” that is, breaking the capsules and  extracting the mucilage-wrapped broad beans and placing them in the fermentation tanks.

Alex, Machò, Adriano, and Nicolas are used to the work; I am just an addition, but two extra hands buy everyone a few dozen minutes.

We are now well into the evening and all together in Nicolas’ pickup we return to base.

My wife Mery, who had been closely following the work by meticulously noting down everything that happened and recording all the names of the botanical varieties encountered, looked tired.

Friends Giancarlo and Federico were not doing much better either.

The  ground under the cocoa trees is very muddy because it rains almost every day in the tropics, so walking is really tiring.

The third day begins with a phone call at four in the morning.

My daughter Simona  calls me to wish me a happy 39th birthday.

I think of the gifts of the Amazon rainforest on this particular day.

At six o’clock we have breakfast in the posada, which is truly remarkable: eggs freshly laid by the chickens flitting about in the farmyard cooked in a skillet, and a chocolate cake of world-class stature.

Just enough time to get the recipe and we are already on the dirt road that takes us north into the chocolate mountains.

It’s pouring rain but our goal absolutely must be pursued; we travel for over two hours, reach the fazenda San Pedro where Jean, a young cocoa producer, proudly explains that he represents the fourth generation of cocoa producers on a farm that stretches for 900 hectares, and boasts over 26,000 cocoa plants, many of them represented by clones of Scavinia, a variety crossed between Criollo and Trinitarian.

We leave in Jean’s truck; Walter, granite manager of the San Padro fazenda, is also with us.

We pass through an incredible expanse of plants in aUNESCO-protected area; we find extraordinary specimens of Criollo, with fire-red elongated parrot-beaked cabossides, and still other unknown varieties; the mud is so much, it doesn’t stop raining, but I still haven’t found the cocoa I was looking for.

Walter remembers that at the other fazenda, “Leolinda,” a wild white variety once grew but that due to Cargil’s insistence, the plants were uprooted because the white fava seemed diseased.

We set off for “Leolinda.”

Reaching this fazenda is a nightmarish journey; the rain has deformed the roads, creating chasms; my wife, Jean and I are inside the truck while Walter is on the dump truck, soaking wet but unflappable. The rest of the group follows us by pickup truck, on a journey that turns into a real Camel-Trophy.

Jean does not flinch and continues driving until he reaches fazenda Leolinda where  the fazenda manager  joins the group by climbing into the truck with Walter.

Jean’s smug look tells me that perhaps our efforts will not be in vain.

We climb toward Cocoa Mountain, and as we cross its slopes I understand the reason for the name: the most diverse varieties present themselves to us.

Hanging from a plant is a fruit of Trinitario that weighs more than three kilos; the fava beans are huge.

They explain to me that this is a completely unique hybrid: the plant produces only about ten fruits but their size is impressive

We harvest it and continue through a cola plantation, the fruit of which is sold to the chemical industry that extracts the essence for Coca Cola.

Rodrigo indicates to Jean that he is close to reaching the only plant that produces the 100% white cotyledon

He was sincere: at 11:30 a.m. we reach the spot where some plants have resisted destruction, and there we find the only tree specimen of Catongo in  purity.

The excitement for me is great: it’s my birthday, it’s really a great gift, the campesinos are surprised at my emotion and ask me why I am looking for a cocoa that “others” consider sick.

Catongo is the name given to this particular variety of cocoa with a white cotyledon.

It is a variety with mixed genetic characteristics: the collar of Criollo and the capsule of Amelonado; the color of the fruit is golden yellow with black glares and streaks.

As I look at this white cocoa plant considered diseased because it is disliked by industrial logic, I understand what biodiversity is: being considered strange because it is unique and different, being considered useless and to be forgotten because it is unprofitable.

It is industrial racism,apartheid manufacturing.

I insist with Jean that he do a series of grafts of Catongo clones: he tells me that he has no problem with dedicating a Parcela to that genotype, and I am thrilled, with a handshake between myself, Jean and Nicolas it is sanctioned that the cocoa produced in that Parcela will be part of a collection of chocolates that I am going to produce and will be a’World exclusive, a cousin of the well-known Porcelain (named for its color), forest-grown and of pure origin from the Mata Atlantica.

Observing carefully, Mery points out to me that the leaf buds are not red like the others but a very pale green, and the flowers consist of five petals and four really impressive all-white pistils.

We pick some fruits and set off on our way back, while the rain continues undaunted but we no longer notice it: the noise it makes as it falls on the leaves, combined with the chirping of the birds provides the soundtrack to our happiness.

The rain falls hard, we are soaking wet, and proudly on our feet we experience a real tropical adventure wading through pools of water, sudden climbs and steep descents all with incredible fun.

At five o’clock we return to the base, shattered but overjoyed.

We achieved our goal, found three interesting genotypes, stimulated producers and discovered a new – indeed very ancient – world of cocoa.

On the fourth day comes the litmus test: demonstrating to cocoa producers what constitutes quality chocolate.

At 8:30 a.m. we are at the research center of CEPAC, a modern experimental chocolate production laboratory.

The equipment is typical of the research laboratory, so small in size; we start with the careful and meticulous selection of the Scavinia fragrant fava beans: the fava beans are of good size, when cut they are well fermented, the moisture is correct so we start roasting.

Then we go to the cocoa breaker, rudimentary but quite effective: with a series of passes and sifting we manage to discreetly granulate the beans, a retesting of the grains to equalize the roasting, then passage into the peg mill, small but sufficient for the experimental amount, mixing with the sugars by hand and then in the refiner with three horizontal, water-cooled cylinders.

The size of the cylinders requires several steps to achieve a fair refining, then it is time for short, cold conching in a small ceramic basin, a few hours in the basin, and then tempering.

During the conching we proceed with a visit to the nursery; passing through the Biogenetics Center I see the working method, talk with the research manager and ask him if the continuous search for fungus-resistant varieties does not risk neglecting palate satisfaction.

He is astonished by my question and tells me. “yes, we didn’t think about taste at this stage, but the severity of the infestation was such that it was at risk of extinction of the species, now that the first results have been achieved, thanks to people like you to collaborate with we could map cocoa from a gastronomic point of view as well, in fact I would be glad if you Mr. Bessone would like to be part of our research group.”.

Gratified by Professor Vignerol‘s proposal, I accepted the offer and he accompanied me to the nursery, majestic.

An expanse of saplings of all sizes grafted using a variety of methodologies and ready to be put into the field.

They will be the seedlings that will ensure the salvation of cocoa, and hopefully that of palate delight as well.

Back to the production center: given the small amount of chocolate produced I decide to temper by hand on marble.

The tempering succeeded and I made some bars of the tasting drops and pralines filled with fresh cocoa jelly, really amazing, tasty fresh and original.

At the end of the day, Mery and Nicolas set up the presentation buffet, and the local cocoa producers tasted in amazement at the result of proper production and the magic of creating a single-varietal pure 71% cocoa chocolate without vanilla or lecithin-a remarkable achievement.

Just enough time to say goodbye to friends and the day ends and with it our Brazilian experience.

But I will be back soon: the first pure productions would be shipped  in time for CioccolaTO‘ where I wanted to present the three monovarietals and the Mata Atlantica Blend.

In my heart, I hoped that this trip would bring me pleasant surprises, so I had decided to take my friends Giancarlo Bononi and Federico Bondi with me.

But I never imagined that this visit would turn out to be a pivotal page in the history of  MataAtlantica and in that of my life.

I am a  artisan chocolatier  Cuneo, and I think I have adopted Mata Atlantica.

I am convinced that this trip will remain in the hearts and minds of all of us forever, and I hope that fans of “food of the gods” will one day remember it.

Silvio Bessone

Ilhéus, Brazil – November 25/29, 2004