To obtain the best chocolate, it is essential to have a good quality raw material. It is a delicate balance that must be maintained during several stages and that begins even before the cocoa tree is planted. It needs certain shady conditions to be able to grow, as this prevents its leaves from being directly exposed to the sun's rays. This implies that, before planting the cocoa tree, other plants or trees must be available that are capable of offering the necessary shade. Currently there are two techniques used for this; the so-called temporary shade and permanent shade.
Temporary shade has the advantage of generating rapid growth. It offers the farmer the possibility of a short-term economic income, during the time of cultivation and care of the cocoa. The most used plants for this purpose are the musaceae (banana and cambur), as well as corn, cassava and pigeon pea. These plants also have the advantage of producing a large amount of organic matter that is favorable for the soil of the crop.
In the permanent shade modality, the procedure consists of planting trees, tall enough for their foliage to produce the necessary shade layer, together with the temporary shade plants. These trees regulate the temperature of the crop by creating a green roof with their foliage; in this way the humidity is controlled and thus the soil is prevented from suffering evaporation. In the same way, plants are protected, avoiding the incidence of strong winds on them.
The most used trees —due to their rapid expansion and growth— are the bucares (Eritryna), the cedars (Pseudo Samanea guachapele), the mijao (Anacardium rhinocarpus) and the samán (Samanea Saman). Techniques are also currently being developed for the use of fruit trees such as avocado or citrus.
The planting of the cocoa tree is carried out by alignment. In an imprecise manner, the holes are opened, stakes are set, three seeds are planted per hole and the thinning is done months later, leaving the most robust of the little trees. In valleys like the coastal ones of Aragua it is necessary to irrigate the cocoa. Irrigation is carried out by flooding or runoff, building intakes in the river to derive in ditches and through canals they reach all the plants. Drainage is facilitated by a good slope.
To avoid pests and diseases, it is important to carry out the weeding, sucking and discoloration of the plants. This activity is constant in the plantations, because in the areas where the cocoa tree grows there are usually parasitic plants and ringworm that must be eliminated. The "desuchuponado", is carried out to eliminate the sprout or suckers that sprout constantly from the trunk. These tasks are usually done to clean the plantation before harvest.
Old, unproductive or dead plants are renewed by transplanting small trees already developed in the nurseries, or by direct sowing using the ancestral technique of three seeds per hole with subsequent thinning. Renewal is also carried out by lifting root or podal suckers to replace old or damaged trunks.
To harvest the cocoa pods you must ensure that they are fully ripe. Between 160 and 185 days must have elapsed since the fertilization of the flower. If a cob is harvested before time, its mucilage would not have been able to offer the necessary sugar levels for the almond to achieve a good fermentation, which gives it an excess of astringency and acidity. During the harvest, it is necessary to eliminate the diseased cobs and those that are overripe to avoid the risk of processing almonds in a state of germination that can cause undesirable flavors.
Ripe ears must be lowered with an appropriate tool, which varies according to the position of the ear. If these forecasts are not taken into account, injuries could be caused to the plant that affect its performance. To split the cobs without damaging the almonds, instead of a sharp object, a mallet is used, usually made of wood, since the edges could cause wounds in the almonds that deteriorate the quality of the process.
Another important point to consider is the proper management of harvest residues to avoid sources of pathogenic contamination that could affect cocoa trees. This is vulnerable to several diseases and pests that must be prevented, as they can ruin the almonds and generate large losses.
Venezuelan cocoa production
The main cocoa production sites in Venezuela are those that reproduce on a certain scale the climatic conditions of soil, humidity and lighting of the tropical forest. Sánchez (1995) establishes the following division to describe the regions with the best aptitude for cocoa cultivation in Venezuela:
North Central Coastal Region
It is constituted by the Barlovento valley and the valleys of the Aragüeño coast. In the Barlovento area, cocoa is grown mainly in the tropical rain forest with rainfall ranging between 1.800 and 3.000 mm, an average annual temperature of 27 °C, two dry months and an altitude of
25 to 70 meters above sea level. The soils are of alluvial origin, with clayey to loamy textures, with a neutral pH that fluctuates to slightly acid, moderately well drained. In this area periodic floods occur in the river plains, but of short duration.
On a smaller scale, cocoa is also grown in the tropical dry forest area of this region. The average rainfall is 1.400 mm, with 5 dry months (between January and May). The soils are of recent alluvial origin, with clay textures and moderately well drained.
In the valleys of the Aragüeño coast, cocoa is restricted to gallery forests, with an altitude of less than 200 meters above sea level, with rainfall of less than 1.100 mm, for which complementary irrigation is necessary, used since colonial times, during several months a year. The soils are shallow and have sandy-loam textures.
North Eastern Region
It is constituted mainly by the Paria peninsula and the alluvial zones of the Delta Amacuro and Monagas states. Cocoa production areas are located in the tropical humid forest and the tropical dry forest, with rainfall between 1.000 and 1.800 mm, with a dry period that ranges between four and six months. The soils are alluvial with an adequate level of fertility and present problems due to periodic flooding, especially in Delta Amacuro.
It includes the southern area of Lake Maracaibo and the foothills of the states of Barinas, Portuguesa, Táchira, Mérida and Apure. In the south of the Lake, cultivation takes place in the areas of tropical humid forest and tropical dry forest, with recent, deep and well-drained alluvial soils. In the piedmont region, the production areas are located in the gallery forests and in the tropical rain forest.
From a botanical point of view, the Theobroma cacao (which in Latin means "food of the gods") belongs to the sterculiaceae family. It is found in the lower floors of the humid forests of the tropical belt, generally at an altitude of less than 1.400 meters above sea level. For its development, this plant needs high average annual temperatures, high humidity conditions and a tree cover that protects it from direct sunlight and evaporation.
The seeds found inside the fruit (also known as cob) are rich in starch, protein, fat and other elements that give it a very high nutritional value. The fruits of the different species of cocoa trees present a very great diversity in terms of color, shapes, flowers and seeds.
Among the various classifications that have been made, is that of Henri Pittier, who distinguished in 1930 two main types among the species of Theobroma cacao: the criollos, with elongated and pointed fruits, originating from the northern part of the Andean mountain range to Mexico; and the outsiders, from the Amazon and Orinoco basins, with rounded and almost smooth fruits.
In 1944 Chessman incorporated a third type: the trinitarians, product of the cross between criollos and outsiders, with purple fruits, or green with purple pigments, and large, slightly astringent seeds.
Types of Venezuelan cocoa
Derived from plants with little vigor and low yield, but with high quality seeds. This type of cocoa, in turn, is subdivided into:
Their ears are red or green before maturity. Elongated shape, very pointed tip at the lower end. Surface marked by 10 very deep grooves. Coarse, plump and rounded grains.
With color characteristics very similar to the Andean Creole, but with a short and cylindrical body. It has a short tip marked by 5 grooves. The skin is thinner and practically smooth. The grooves are not marked. The seed is usually white or yellow, sometimes with some pink tones, hence its name.
It produces a cob with a very particular shape, with 5 prominent edges and no furrows. This type of cocoa is known in the Venezuelan Andes as "cuatro filos". The seeds are large and rounded.
It is characterized by its great vigor and productivity. It has greater resistance and tolerance to diseases or viruses than Creole cocoa. It represents approximately 95% of world production, coming from West African countries, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil.
It is the result of the cross between foreign and Creole cocoa. Also known as delta, it is widely used in Venezuela. It is more resistant and productive than Creole cocoa, but of inferior quality. It is grown in Grenada, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Venezuela and Central America. This type of cocoa is further subdivided into:
With deep furrows and a rough surface, with large and semi-round grains.
With rather superficial grooves, although in some varieties they are deeper. The diameter is approximately 50% of the length of the fruit.
With slightly pronounced furrows, the diameter is 60% to 75% of the length of the fruit. Globe-shaped, it is very similar to a melon. The seeds are flat and dark purple.
Its fruit is small, with five marked grooves. The apex varies; it can be blunt in some varieties and pointed in others. The seeds are flat, triangular and dark purple.
In addition to the botanical classification, there is another derived from the commercial and industrial world.
Beans produced by forastero type cocoa; These are used in the manufacture of cocoa butter and products that have a high proportion of chocolate.
Fine or aroma cocoa
In general terms, the Criollo and Trinitario cocoa beans correspond to what is known in the world market as fine or aroma cocoa. It is generally used in blends with ordinary or foreign grains to produce specific flavors in finished products.
The grains corresponding to this last category give specific characteristics of aroma or color in fine chocolates of coatings or covering layers. They are also used (although less and less) to produce cocoa powder, which is used as a flavor in some recipes and in the preparation of some foods and beverages. The world supply of fine or aroma cocoa is relatively small and represents approximately 5% of the cocoa produced in the world.
As the researcher Eduardo González Jiménez (2007) points out, cocoa can come in a very wide range of qualities, but there is an important ingredient that is smoothness, that is, how it dissolves in the mouth, how it fills the palate and how much chocolate taste lasts in the oral cavity. Something that could be called aftertaste. That is precisely the fundamental characteristic of Criollo that differentiates it from other cocoas. Also its cocoa and almond flavors are superior in this type of cocoa.
The world cocoa trade is changing rapidly due to the demand for fine chocolates of certified origin by cultivation specificities. Something similar to vintages, years or strains of wines happens with chocolate. Fine cocoa is in demand with exponential acceleration, which has imposed new marketing methods and greater demands regarding quality, origin and foreign trade. For this reason, certificates of origin, quality control and harvest certification are becoming essential to meet the growing demands for very specific quality cocoas.