A Passion for Chocolate

The indigenous Olmec of what is now the Mexican state of Tabasco may well have been the first people to consume cacao, according to some studies. Since 2007, a Slow Food Presidium has been protecting the varieties (Trinitario, Forastero and Criollo) grown in the state’s Chontalpa region, the possible homeland of chocolate. The Presidium now works with 36 producers, supporting them with training and promotion, and is coordinated by Alma Rosa Garcés Medina. She also runs the local NGO ATCO (Asesoría Técnica en Cultivos Orgánicos), which for over a decade has been working with cooperatives of cacao producers who use traditional techniques.

Cacao is the most important product for Chontalpa’s small-scale farmers, but often it does not guarantee them sufficient income, because intermediaries impose their own price conditions. Now, the cacao beans are being promoted on the local markets, allowing the growers to obtain better prices. And as of this year, Guido Gobino, one of Italy’s most renowned chocolate artisans, has started working with the Mexican Presidium product. The delicious results will be presented at the next Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre (Turin, October 25-29).

Alma Rosa Garcés Medina told us more about the Presidium and how this important collaboration came about.

Cacao is in the DNA of the people of Chontalpa. What is its story and link with the local area?
Cacao is a natural element of this region’s environment and has always been an essential part of our daily life, from rituals to production activities, playing a very important role in the survival of the Mesoamerican peoples. Ever since the Olmec, Maya and Nahua cultures identified the virtues and intrinsic qualities of this plant, it has been assigned a very special role in their tradition, which is reflected in art, stories, documents and other evidence that has survived to the present day. Now, after more than 500 years, every day people throughout southeast Mexico drink cold beverages made with cacao, like pozol, chorote and tascalate.


How can the Presidium improve the work in the fields and the processing of the product to obtain a cacao that is a unique expression of Chontalpa?
The Presidium can help us to rediscover the flavors of the genetic varieties native to the region and the traditional knowledge linked to production, and encourage good processing practices during the post-harvest phase, to enhance the cacao’s intrinsic qualities. There’s no doubt that this is a lengthy and challenging process, but we are already seeing good results from our efforts to add value to cacao production, which represents the main source of income for many local families. This work makes us very proud and helps us to raise the profile of a Mexican product which has played an essential role in the productive and economic development of many regions, not only in our own communities but also the whole world.


What has been the added value of the collaboration with Slow Food and Terra Madre?
The collaboration with Slow Food has been essential to our journey, not just for the development of the Presidium, but also because in difficult moments it represented continuity and gave us the encouragement we needed to carry on. None of us has forgotten the terrible flood of 2007, which took everything from us. At that time Slow Food mobilized to help us get back to work in the fields, rekindling our hope of having allies who had faith in our work, even if geographically distant. The help received during those days has transformed into a commitment that we have embraced forever.


In 2014 you entered into an agreement with Guido Gobino. What were the biggest challenges in producing Presidium cacao for the Turinese chocolatier?
For the producers and for ATCO, the production of this batch of cacao represented a huge challenge. Only teamwork allowed us to overcome it. We could only meet the requirements of this important artisan by coordinating our work and battling together against the 73 days of uninterrupted rain that coincided with the cacao harvest. Given these conditions, the fermentation and the drying of the beans was also very difficult, but thanks to hard work and collaboration we were able to obtain a good product. We’re very satisfied with this batch of cacao, but we do think that with normal weather conditions the quality could be even higher.


What are your expectations for the collaboration with Guido Gobino?
We are very grateful to have the opportunity and for the trust that Guido Gobino has placed in us. We would like to consolidate a production-processing relationship that makes us proud, and we would like to collaborate closely with Gobino in order to be able to increase volumes and focus on an ever higher quality of beans. We hope that this collaboration will help us to involve an increasingly large number of communities of producers and can bring benefits to the women and men who work in the cacao plantations of Mexico’s Chontalpa region.

Guido Gobino’s Chontalpa range, made using Presidium cacao, will be on sale from September 2014 and will be officially presented at the 2014 Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre (Turin, October 25-29).


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© Ana Lorena Villalpando

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