After a white night at work, I drove off to Heathrow and boarded a flight to Newark. The stop over in New Jersey was uneventful apart from the worried look on the face of the immigration officer when I mentioned I was taking a connecting flight to Colombia. He did not believe my story of a precious week off spent cocoa farming and asked me to produce some evidence of my intentions.
He did not look like a man to be messed with so I refrained from making a joke about the other crops of Colombia. All the chocolate bars I had brought with me were in my luggage. The only link to Artisan on me was my company credit card with Artisan du chocolat etched on it. It passed inspection and was allowed through.
Another 7 hours flight landed me in Bogota where I received the same puzzled expression from the El Dorado airport officials. To my surprise I was swiftly escorted to a private room for further questioning. The man in charge asked me to confirm where I was staying. A cocoa farm in the middle of the jungle did not give him much confidence. I started contemplating the possibility of spending a night in a Colombian jail and to be honest after close to 24 hours of travel and 36 hours awake, that did not sound as bad as answering questions. The official did not speak much English and my Spanish is non existent. He typed questions on his computer screen and used an approximate automatic translation to communicate. Most of these questions I either did not understand or could not answer. Oh boy. Eventually after much creative explanation, I was allowed out of El Dorado. I reached the hotel and slept like a log till my 5 am wake up call.
By 6am I was back at a smaller national airport and boarded a tiny airplane bound for Manizales. A further h our drive and I reached my destination for the next 4 days: La Granja, Casa Luker research and model cocoa farm. La Ganja sits at about 1000m altitude, nestled between the impenetrable Colombian mountains that once were active volcanoes. The richness of its soil makes it a perfect location for cocoa farming or for growing anything for that matter. Everywhere you look nature, in its colourful and majestic glory, shines: lush green vegetation in shapes I had not seen before, bright exotic flowers dotting the landscape like a painting, butterflies and birds of all colours birds showing off their stunning beauty in the cloudless sky. And heat, the sort of heart that envelops you relentlessly even in the shade. I quickly changed into shorts and strappy top, smothered every inch of skin I could reach in the strongest sun cream I could buy in the UK. Armed with pruning shears and a jute bag, I followed the farmers into the plantation. My first task of the day was to learn how to cut ripe pods from the trees. To maximise the chance of future flowers, the pod has to be cut as far as possible from the tree. It reminded me of Easter egg hunts, searching for the yellow pods (the only ones I was allowed to cut) hidden behind thick foliage. I had to dive under branches and often felt like I had the complete encyclopaedia of beasties crawling, flying, jumping all over and on me. Determined to impress the men who dedicate their lives to fine cacao, I filled my hessian bag quickly moving from tree to tree. When I thought I had enough to retrace my steps back, I realised that my bag was too heavy to carry and I had no idea in which direction to go. Luckily I was found fairly quickly and swore from then to only walk in fairly straight lines. There is as much life as there is death in a plantation. Life goes full circle every yard: cocoa flowers sprouting from the bark, cocoa pods in infancy looking not much bigger than the size of a chilli pepper, full size pods round and opulent in gorgeous hues of red, purple, green, yellow and orange, diseased pods blotched and irregular and rotting ones left on the floor. Nature, much wiser than us, knows that nothing stays the same.
Lunch time arrived and we all ate on the farm. Lunch consisted of soup (really soup in this heat!), tapioca, potatoes and rice, washed down with a glass of guava juice.
During the afternoon, I learnt how to prepare seeds.La Granja sells every year about 1 million seeds of selected genotypes to small farmers and cooperatives. With an average of 45 beans per pod, this means around 22 000 pods a year to open with a machete and hollow out. The beans coated in thick sweet white pulp are washed by hand. I was then shown how to knead the beans with fine wood chips on a jute bag to remove as much pulp as possible.
The beans are sieved and the operation is repeated 2 or 3 times till they feel fry to the hand. I stood for 3 hours rolling, kneading, and sieving which I found strangely therapeutic. My upper arms my have a different opinion tomorrow morning.
The beans are given a final wash and are hand sorted. They are then sprinkled with a lighter coating of fine wood chips and hand counted in heaps of 500, bagged and shipped. I counted beans for over an hour and worked out a method of keeping track of numbers by placing a bean on the side for every hundred I gathered. Now that is my type of bean counting,
By 5pm with an hour to go before sunset, we all sat in the small open school built on the estate, tasted the flesh of fresh pods and continued with all the chocolate bars I had brought. The evening culminated on the terrace of the hacienda with a barbeque of beef and plantain and a refreshing glass of guanabana, one of the many Colombian fruit that have not yet made it to the shelves of our supermarkets. And in a way, I hope they never do for there is magic in this land that is worth keeping secret.
Have a magical week
Miss Anne x