With its regular rainfalls and high temperatures, Bahia boasts the perfect natural climate for cocoa production. But two decades ago Brazil’s chocolate plantations all but melted away.
An outbreak of the fungus Witches’ Broom swept through the country’s 90,000 km sq cocoa heartland, ravaging crops and leaving thousands of farmers without a livelihood.
The devastating disease, named after the broomstick-esque clusters of dead leaves and small branches which it forms on plants, completely altered the region’s landscape and turned Brazil from the World’s third biggest cocoa grower into only the 13th.
Yearly output fell from 400,000 metric tonnes to just 119,000 per annum.
Twenty years on, the crippling fungus is still ruining harvests, but efforts are now being made to try and battle back against the killer disease.
Situated 45 minutes from the town of Ilhéus is CEPLAC national park.
Here there is a cocoa research and educational centre dedicated to developing new hybrid crop varieties resistant to Witches’ Broom.
As the sun beats down we hop into a doorless VW combi and head into the Atlantic Rainforest. Tragically only 7.3 per cent of the original woodland survives today.
Our guide Josias tells us that he grew up on a cocoa farm, but that Witches’ Broom threatened the family business.
“It was terrible,” he says. “There was nothing we could do about it. When the disease hit the price of cocoa was very low and farmers had little money to invest in fighting it.”
He pulls over and we follow him into one of the 100-hectare park’s fields. “Cacao!” he declares, bending a branch towards us to reveal a richly-coloured brown fruit.
“The fruit has to be picked at exactly the right time, when it is a yellow colour,” he adds.
“A long stick is used and those doing the harvest must be protected from above and below – a helmet to deflect falling fruit and boots to avoid poisonous snakes.”
Wearing neither a helmet nor boots Sophie and I are glad to make it safely back to our little buggy and we drive a further few kilometres into the park to be shown the next stage of the production process.
On the way Josias tells us more about the work being done to create a cocoa renaissance.
“CEPLAC is trying to encourage more cocoa production in the region,” he says, “and now 65 per cent of all farming land must now be used to plant cocoa.”
We pull over next to a barn housing rows of large wooden bins.
Our knowledgable guide tells us that after harvesting, the elongated, wide-ridged cocoa fruits are opened and the 20 or so beans contained inside removed.
The beans are covered in a sticky but sweet and juicy white pulp which we happily sample.
After fermenting the purple, almond-shaped beans are placed on giant trays covered by low movable roofs.
In the scorching sun, they are able to dry out. Still more drying in a hot, spinning barrel reduces the water content from eight to just one per cent.
“Every part of the bean is used for something,” adds Josias. “The shell is used for animal feed, while the inner ‘nibs’ create a paste for chocolate bars and drinks.”
Further on we find a small but noisy chocolate-making factory. It is here that students at the nearby agricultural college and members of the public come to learn about the chocolate-making process.
This little enterprise produces just 300 kilogrammes of chocolate a month. It is a world away from the huge machines and state-of-the-art technology housed in Cadbury’s main factory at Bournville, in Birmingham.
However, as anyone who has visited Cadbury World knows, the best bit of any chocolate factory tour is the free samples you are given at the end and Sophie and I are very excited when we are handed two cups containing a thick fragrant liquid and a couple of chocolates.
Josias tells us the higher the percentage of cocoa ‘nibs’ in a bar or drink, the better the quality.
The tipple we try is nearly 60 per cent chocolate ‘proof’. It tastes rich and silky and, while it is as sweet as traditional Western World chocolate drinks, the distinctive flavour of cocoa gives our taste buds something to smile about.
“Making chocolate is not a simple technique,” says Josias, “and the vast majority of cocoa beans are still exported to be turned into chocolate in other countries.
“We want to encourage Brazilians to make the most of the natural raw materials the country is blessed with.”
The latest figures suggest that this year’s cocoa crop is up on last year, but most commentators believe it will take five to ten years before harvests are back to anywhere near the levels of 20 years ago.