What was once a common tree growing in the middle of town some 1400 years ago, was all but lost until recently. In 2002, the New York Botanical Society led an excavation in search of cacao at the ruins of Joya de Ceren, here in El Salvador. The site was buried under nearly 10 feet of lava. Combining previous works, they were able to pinpoint evidence of cacao trees growing throughout the community. Cacao was available for everyone. I recently spoke with Paul Amaroli who works extensively at the many ruins here, and he said they even have a cacao bean on display. DNA was attempted years ago, but the results as to the strain of cacao were inconclusive.
In recent months, the growers and manufacturers of fine chocolate in El Salvador have come together to form the first official cacao association. It is a varied group of enthusiastic people who are passionate about putting El Salvador back on the map as a producer of fine Criollo cacao. I was recently asked to join the group. I am on the board, under the description of, "Vocal." My key responsibilities will be focused towards marketing in the U.S. Although I should mention, we have a fine producer of chocolate temptations right here in El Salvador that has set the bar very high. Shaw's Chocolates will be our first large scale customer. They are tooling up and will soon be doing their own processing from start to finish.
I have come to learn there are about 18 plantations of various sizes growing cacao here in the country. The majority, myself included, have the same strain of Criollo cacao supplied from one source. There have been some issues with the trees over the years. The new association will be able to provide much needed funding for technical support and additional nursery stock. We are fortunate that while production might be low as of yet, the trees are healthy. They have not succumbed to the many dreaded diseases that Cacao is so susceptible to.
We have a technician arriving from Honduras next week to inspect the fincas and offer up his expertise, all within the organic growing guidelines. I for one, am thrilled. These past four years, I had no idea there were others such as myself muddling along. It was enough that my 4,000 trees have survived with only minimal loss. These are exciting times for El Salvador. Bringing back a crop that originated with the Mayan civilization, was once bigger than coffee, and has a chance to be a big player on the world cacao market, is worth the hard work ahead.
Two Sundays ago, I joined Ramon and Judy Quiroz, owners of Shaw's Chocolates along with Paul Amaroli and his wife Elizabeth on a tour of Finca Cuyancua. The land and house, Casa de Campo are owned by Rafael Trigueros, president of ES-CACAO, our new association. Rafael inherited the property from his father, Dr. Guillermo Trigueros. The finca is located just outside Izalco, with lush vegetation and freshwater springs that supply his ever-expanding projects. Rafael and his lovely assistant Vanessa were gracious hosts.
One of Rafael's showcase projects is his wildly successful aquaculture tilapia and shrimp ponds. When it came to deciding what to have for lunch, there was no question. Shrimp and fish please! He has converted the old hacienda into a charming restaurant where we lingered over coffee and dessert. Rafael is also blessed with cacao trees that are over 80 years old. He is in the process of rehabilitating the trees and they are bursting with pods. They might be the oldest cacao trees in the country.
Rafael is clever letting the land and natural resources do the work for him. He used to use an expensive diesel pump to supply his tilapia pond. He has since constructed a series of channels and locks allowing gravity to what it does best. He uses the water from his ponds to supply nutrients for his hydroponic tomatoes and lettuce. During construction, he came across a buried channel that leads off the property towards town. Paul Amaroli, ever the curious archaeologist, thought it worthy of further study.
It was an enjoyable day. We each had our cameras and I suggested we had better get our photo-op done before sunset. It took a good 20 minutes of gathering everyone together, showing the restaurant staff how to work the various cameras, and then posing, never quite sure which camera we were supposed to look at since two were being aimed at any given time.
In a conversation with Paul that afternoon, he solved the mystery of La Rama, the archaeological site that I have been trying so hard to find. He knew immediately what I was talking about and has provided me with the information I need to locate it. With the promise of course, to call him when I am successful. He is equally curious as there have been no recent studies of the area since its discovery in 1953. What is La Rama? They are footprints that are estimated to date from A.D. 1200. The footprints indicate five people with one of them being a child. I marvel to think I might actually get to see them. They are apparently badly weathered, but still distinguishable. Well as of 1953, that is. What is truly amazing, for myself anyway, is that the location is on a very old cacao plantation.