The Chocolate Life

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Off to Bolivia :: The Hacienda Tranquilidad

Sometime in 2006 in the oppressive summer heat that invades Phoenix, AZ, I was introduced to a new chocolate - Cru Sauvage; the newest entry in Felchlin's Grand Cru line and made from "wild" beans harvested in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Eastern Bolivia.

The story of their making it to market is quite remarkable and is testament to the patience of my host on my trip, Volker Lehmann. Convinced the beans he had were something special Volker traveled around the world trying to get chocolate makers interested in making chocolate from them. One of the main complaints he got about the beans was that they were too small to make chocolate economically.

Entranced by the story, I was astonished when I saw where the trees were growing and what they looked like. The trees (which are technically feral, not wild, because they were planted - over 500 years ago even though they have not been tended in hundreds of years), grow on islands in the middle of a seemingly endless savannah. Amazingly, the savannah (some 70,000 acres) AND the islands are all man-made. The multi-trunked trees also amaze; they are unlike any other trees I have seen.

Ever since that day in 2006 I have wanted to visit this place - the Hacienda Tranquilidad and meet with the gentleman who persevered to sell the beans to Felchlin. In my opinion (and that of others), the 2006 harvest especially made one of the great chocolates produced anywhere in the past decade or more.

So, it is with great delight that within about 12 hours I am going to be boarding a plane at LaGuardia airport in NYC headed to Miami where I will catch a red-eye to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. There I will be met by Mr Lehmann and after spending the day in Santa Cruz Volker and I will board the overnight bus for Trinidad where we will catch a plane to Baures, a little more than 100km from the border with Brasil and near the Itenez Forest Reserve. There we will take a jeep the last few miles to the Hacienda Tranquilidad.

It is the peak harvest season in this part of Bolivia and even though the weather forecast calls for a greater than 50% chance of thundershowers for my entire trip, I will do everything that I possibly can to make my way to one of those islands to stand among those remarkable trees, open a pod, and suck the sweet pulp off perfectly fresh-ripe cacao seeds.

I apologize for the dearth of pictures (these were taken from Felchlin's web site), but I do hope to have many more to share in the coming days. Stay tuned ...

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Comment by Sunita de Tourreil on February 8, 2010 at 1:06pm
Just found my answer to this question in a post by Mr Lehmann in the Giving Back Group. Sorry about that! I am going to read more via the link provided.
Comment by Sunita de Tourreil on February 8, 2010 at 3:06am

The picture of the trees growing on islands that you report is from Felchlin's web site, appears to be the same picture that Original Beans is using on their site for the "Beni Wild Harvest" bar.

Do you know if Volker Lehmann is selling this cacao to Original Beans as well? Looking forward to reading more about your trip!
Comment by Volker Lehmann on January 14, 2010 at 6:22pm
Dear Clay,
I think I could show and explain, as far as I know, the story behind the cacao trees and you understand now that the attribute "wild" is absolutely correct, even though one can find supposedly some trees planted by man.
I might explain a bit here for all others. A plant stays in its wild form as long man do not select, breed or transplant it outside its natural habitat. The only areas where one can find "planting schemes" in reduced parts of the "chocolatales" (forest islands) are in agro-archiological "home gardens" possibly influenced by the Jesuits some 350 years ago, when they where trading this type of cacao to Spain. Most of the wild cacao today (99%) is disseminated without any planting pattern throughout the entire Beni and Pando Departments, mainly alongside the multiple river banks and its nearby forests. It is still unclear when the cacao came to this part of the Amazon or if it is native to it. A first study (Wilson July, 2008) of genetic strains show a relation to other forastero types and makes it a relative of the Arriba found in Ecuador. The selection for the study was incomplete and the Itenez/Baures types are not genetically assessed until today. It can be concluded that even under Jesuit planning most cacao trees in the Itenez Province are still in its wild form and one can distinct at least 4 varieties of which non is predominant, but all have outstanding quality characteristics and the dripping of the fresh tiny and very juicy beans is of most exquisite taste and you confirmed that.

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