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Three Places to Taste Latin America’s Chocolate Renaissance

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Chocolate. The word alone makes your mouth water. A treat so luxurious it’s no wonder the ancient Maya considered cacao trees to be sacred. While many people think of Belgium and Switzerland as the originators of fine chocolate, they might be surprised that some of the earliest purveyors — and consumers of cacao — were the Olmecs of Mesoamerica, possibly as early as 1500 B.C.E.

Over the past decade or so, chocolate making has returned to its roots in the Americas, as industry practices and consumer consciousness have started to change. In a rebirth of chocolate made at the origin, countries that grow cacao are beginning to produce quality products to rival their European counterparts. For Simran Sethi, host and curator of the Slow Melt, a podcast about chocolate, this development can only be a good thing. “Without these farmers — and without these places — there is no chocolate,” she says.

When cacao beans are processed close to the source, they retain more of their original character, purity and nuance. Beans from different regions possess different flavors, some offering citrus tones while others boast spicy notes. As with coffee and other artisan products, consumers now want to feel a connection with the farmers cultivating the beans — and the craftspeople making the chocolate. They want to know their faces and to ensure that they receive credit for their important role in the chocolate-making process. Three countries in Latin America are leading the way in connecting ancient chocolate traditions and modern farmers with travelers looking for an authentic taste of cacao at the source.

Mexico: A New Twist on Ancient Ingredients

Cacao’s history, deeply rooted in Mesoamerican Mexico, is one that mainly evolved around religious rituals and consumption by the noble classes. MUCHO, the chocolate museum in Mexico City, features an entire section of its permanent exhibition dedicated to the prominent role cacao played in the lives of the Mexica (more commonly known as the Aztec), who used it as currency, and the Maya, whose baptism ritual included anointing a child with liquid chocolate.

Mexicans have never stopped the practice of drinking chocolate like their ancient ancestors but historically exported much of their cacao to other countries. José Ramon Castillo — the chef and chocolatier behind the evolutionary shop Que Bo!— is working to change that. In using only Mexican ingredients and producing luxury chocolate, he pays reverence to his ancestors for whom cacao was a gift from the gods.

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A trip to Que Bo!’s store in Polanco, Mexico City — a pleasant, 10-minute walk from the Presidente InterContinental Mexico City — is like taking a journey through the country’s customs and flavors. Think mezcal, hibiscus and even grasshopper — the store stocks chocolate truffles in all of those flavors, as well as chocolate made in the shape of traditional Mexican toys. Que Bo! links Mexicans with their ancestral heritage, honoring the importance of chocolate and its particular role in the rituals of life.

Brazil: A Farm-to-Bar Connection

In Brazil, traditional cultures did not revere cacao in a spiritual sense, but for Diego Badaró, making chocolate is a spiritual practice that connects him to the roots of his country. When disease hit his family’s land in 1982, they thought they would never produce cacao again. A dozen years later, Badaró sat down among the trees and recognized his calling to bring the plantation back to life and produce world-class

chocolate. His brand AMMA — a name that means love and mother in a variety of languages — was one of the first artisanal Brazilian chocolate lines to go to market. Less than a decade later, the country offers more than 50 local chocolate brands. “It’s a rebirth of Brazilian chocolate, and I am very honored to be part of it,” Badaró explains.

The AMMA store in Sao Paolo is a full-sensory chocolate experience that helps to

create a deep relationship between the consumer and the cacao farmer, enhancing empathy and understanding of the humanity behind the cultivation of the cacao and the resulting chocolate bars. Visitors can explore, sample and feel the connection to the forest of Bahia, without leaving the bustling city. “Once you close the door, you get into another dimension of flavors and aromas, it is a really unique experience,” Badaró says.

Colombia: Rare Flavors from Unique Terroir

Colombia is one of the more recent entries in the craft chocolate movement. Cacao turns out to be a perfect transition crop away from coca, since both plants thrive in the same soil and conditions. Like Mexicans, Colombians traditionally sipped drinking chocolate and historically imported more than it exported, according to Suzie Hoban, a chocolatier based in Bogotá. Today, multiple craft brands produce chocolate locally.

The Colombian Chocolate Club, started by Hoban, offers chocolate tasting sessions that take participants on a journey through the history of Colombia by way of the richly diverse flavors of its chocolate. These tastings help cultivate an appreciation for the complexities of chocolate making, while exploring the deep and inextricable connection of cacao to Colombian soil. The country, for example, produces a rare, almost pure criollo cacao bean that can only be found in isolated parts. “It’s been a long time since Colombians have felt they can be proud, and now chocolate is giving them something to feel proud about,” Hoban says.

These chocolate artisans foresee a rich future for craft chocolate in the Americas, reflecting increased consumer empathy for this complex and luxurious product. “What’s exciting,” Sethi says, “is bringing the maker and the consumer back together.”

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