Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cocoa Groves in Juanjui

 Thanks to Willy Wonka, I always believed that chocolate came flowing in rivers with Oompa Loompas paddling down in canoes. Not so. The cocoa farms where it all begins are far more beautiful. I was visiting a cocoa farm in Juanjui. To get to this far-out farm, we had to ferry across the Huallaga river in a ferry.  And by ferry I mean someone took three long canoes, tied them together and slapped a bunch of wooden planks on top. That was the ferry. A lone captain with an oversized stick steers it back and forth along that narrow piece of river. 

All around this grove in Juanjui stretched cocoa bushes, their arms full of the red fruits that look like elongated footballs. The ground was covered by a thick carpet of dried leaves and empty cocoa shells. The cocoa is only ripe when it starts turning yellow. One of the farmers cracked open a yellowed one with his machete, exposing the white, sticky flesh inside. It tasted much sweeter and fruitier than I expected, only that the flesh is meager compared to the seed. After the seeds are harvested they need to be fermented for 6-7 days. For chocolate they would need to ferment at least 75%. The fermented cases had the intoxicating smell of Bailey's. I think that's how a lot of chocolate liqueurs are made. Afterwards, they dry them out in the sun by laying them out on mats. All the streets were covered in drying cocoa I was afraid our truck might run over them.

After our meeting with the farmers in the grove, they were kind enough to make us lunch, which was why a poor chicken started racing around the whole plantation, trying to escape its doom. The men had their arms out, running after it, trying to corner it. That terrified mass of feathers finally ran into one of the sheds where the wife was able to tuck the chicken under her armpit and take it to the side to be killed. An hour later, we were slurping on a steaming bowl of “caldo” or chicken broth with carrots and potatoes.

There were many handshakes and hugs when we left the town. Before disappearing into the dirt roads and jungle green, the last splash of human color I saw was a little girl with a big umbrella, hiding from the ruthless sun.