This is about as far as you can get from the world's boutique chocolate shops. I'm hiking through dense, rain-forest-like vegetation near Venezuela's central coast, shooing away mosquitoes and unsuccessfully dodging spiky palm trees. And yet, as a full-fledged chocoholic, I don't mind: I'm about to find the world's best cacao. A couple more meters down the trail, I see it. Not an especially tall tree, nothing majestic--just the bearer of the divine criollo bean.
The simple bean of the Venezuelan criollo--source of what many connoisseurs consider chocolate's gold standard--had been on the verge of extinction. But here on the Monterosa plantation near the town of Choroní, a small group of entrepreneurs and laborers has dedicated itself to making sure the bean flourishes once more. Monterosa's owner, Kai Rosenberg, has devoted the past 20 years to resurrecting the criollo strain and its gene base. "After I survived a rampant cancer, I decided I was going to do what I really loved," he says. "I used to be in insurance. Can you imagine?" (Watch TIME's video, "Bacon Chocolate Bar.")
The ancient people of the Yucatán Peninsula were the first to crush cacao into what was later known as xocolatl--what Rosenberg calls the champagne of the Maya and Aztecs--a frothy beverage reserved for the élite and for special occasions. The Spanish took chocolate back to Europe in the 16th century, discovering the pristine and aromatic criollo bean in Venezuela along the way. Until the 19th century, Venezuela produced solely criollo cacao, which satisfied more than half the world's demand for chocolate. But when an infestation came close to wiping out all the cacao in neighboring Trinidad, nervous Venezuelan farmers began crossing the criollo with a lesser but more resilient bean by about 1825. As a result, the criollo was all but lost. It didn't help that Venezuela began to focus on more lucrative resources such as coffee and, in the early 20th century, oil. Today, "for every sack of cacao, 10 million bbl. of oil are produced" in Venezuela, Rosenberg notes. "In an oil economy, cacao is simply not that competitive."
But businessmen like Rosenberg have recently been spurred on by a growing global market for fine, dark, single-origin (unblended with other varieties) chocolate. Europe and the U.S. account for an almost 40% increase in demand in the past three years. The challenge for Rosenberg and other criollo growers now is to make the plantations viable enterprises. Yet modernity hasn't quite arrived at the Monterosa hacienda, set in the tropical forest of the Henri Pittier National Park. Workers here are drying cacao much the same way they have for 250 years.
Cacao is among the world's most labor-intensive crops. Harvested fruit is sliced open with machetes, and the seeds are then scooped out by hand, placed in fermentation boxes and covered with banana leaves for three to four days. "Technology-wise, we haven't left the 18th century," says Rosenberg. "It is a process that cannot be industrialized." Silvino Reyes, who owns another hacienda, La Concepción, agrees: "Although Venezuelan cacao can sell for close to $2,500 per ton, our production level is the same as three centuries ago." That is, about 15,000 tons a year.
Another problem is land invasions by local farmers who chop down cacao to plant faster-yielding banana trees. "They destroy the forest forever," Rosenberg complains, pointing to a hole in one of his plantation's barbed-wire fences. Jorge Redmond, president of Chocolates El Rey, a Venezuelan company that has been processing premium cacao since 1929, says El Rey saw almost 865 acres (350 hectares) decimated recently when 40 families invaded. "A 10-year effort was destroyed in days," he says. "We were able to produce one batch of San Joaquin Private Reserve chocolate before this happened, but we will never taste that chocolate again. It was an incredible chocolate." His tone is one of heartbreak, lamenting a sweet romance that has often ended in tragedy.