Reviving Puerto Rico's Cocoa Farms, Centuries After Hurricanes Destroyed Them : The Salt Cocoa plantations in Puerto Rico were wiped out centuries ago. Now, local pride and the sheer love of chocolate are bringing back local cocoa.
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Reviving Puerto Rico's Cocoa Farms, Centuries After Hurricanes Destroyed Them

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Reviving Puerto Rico's Cocoa Farms, Centuries After Hurricanes Destroyed Them

Reviving Puerto Rico's Cocoa Farms, Centuries After Hurricanes Destroyed Them

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There's something irresistible about chocolate, possibly many things. Long ago, it was rumored to have aphrodisiac qualities. Recently, researchers have even linked a regular chocolate habit to a reduced risk of heart disease. And now people are falling in love with the idea of growing their own cocoa trees.

In Puerto Rico, no one has grown cocoa commercially for more than a century. But it's making a comeback starting with some Puerto Ricans who tried cultivating their own cocoa crops. NPR's Dan Charles has this story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The dream of Puerto Rican chocolate took root in Juan Carlos Vizcarrondo's mind years ago. He's always been obsessed with flowers and trees. As a boy, he planted so much greenery in his mother's backyard there was hardly room to walk. But in his 30s, he started planting cocoa - in Spanish, caocao - a tree with colorful pods full of magical seeds.

JUAN CARLOS VIZCARRONDO: Something told me just keep planting because nobody has it. It's so strange that nobody has it.

CHARLES: Centuries ago, there were whole plantations of cocoa trees here in Puerto Rico. The climate is perfect for it. But hurricanes wiped them out, and they never came back. Most cocoa now is harvested in places where it's cheaper to hire workers, like West Africa. But you can still find the trees growing wild in the Puerto Rican hills with yellow and purple pods shaped like miniature footballs sprouting from trees and branches. Vizcarrondo collected them wherever he could.

VIZCARRONDO: Once I had the pods in my hands, I was, like, so impressed. I started opening them and, you know, sucking on the pulp. And that was delicious. I started drawing them out in the sun.

CHARLES: He tried grinding up the beans to make his own chocolate. It was terrible at first. But over a decade, he learned how to ferment the beans, how to grind them and temper the chocolate.

VIZCARRONDO: Until finally people told me, OK, I like it now. I'm starting to like it. So then that's where I said, OK, this is interesting.

CHARLES: Eight years ago, he set up a little company, Loiza, with a three-room shop along a highway near the San Juan airport, making chocolate just from beans that he grows on his own farms. His operation's tiny. He sells to local restaurants, specialty shops, some on his website.

But this idea of Puerto Rican chocolate recently has occurred to some other people, too, including a young man who runs the biggest chocolate company in the Caribbean. It's a family business called Cortes Hermanos. And the young man's name is Eduardo Cortez.

EDUARDO CORTES: I was raised in Puerto Rico. I'm Puerto Rican, and I always wanted, you know, to have the opportunity to do what I like to do the best in Puerto Rico.

CHARLES: One day in 2011, Cortes was driving down a highway in Puerto Rico just as he is right now telling me this story when something very strange caught his eye.

CORTES: I saw, like, a truck full of cocoa pods in the highway in Puerto Rico.

CHARLES: Cortes couldn't believe it. As far as he knew, there wasn't any cocoa in Puerto Rico. His company's factories and farmers are mostly in the Dominican Republic.

CORTES: I stopped the truck and asked them where the pods were from. And he told me that they were from a research station in Mayaguez.

CHARLES: The city of Mayaguez sits on Puerto Rico's western coast. Cortes didn't realize this is where the U.S. Department of Agriculture carries out its research on tropical crops. He got in touch with scientists there and discovered they had a huge collection of cocoa trees. Not only that, they just spent 20 years identifying nine new varieties that farmers around the world could grow, varieties that produce lots of good-tasting chocolate. At that point, Cortes hatched a plan. He'd recruit a small group of farmers in Puerto Rico to grow these great new trees and make a high-end chocolate bar just from those beans.

CORTES: There's going to - always going to be a little market for people that want to eat local chocolate just like there is for coffee. And I know at least that is possible.

CHARLES: We turn off the highway, climb into the hills near Mayaguez, and we arrive at one of the farms with the new trees. Actually, it looks more like a forest than a farm. But scattered across the steep hillside in the shade of big trees all around them, I see lines of young cocoa trees - fragile-looking plants just four or five feet tall.

JOSE MARTINEZ CRUZADO: Here we have about 24 growth of caocao.

CHARLES: This is Jose Martinez Cruzado, one of the farmers who's agreed to supply cocoa to the Cortes company. He tells me when he was a boy, he'd see wild cocoa trees in the hills.

CRUZADO: And I'd say, hey, I love chocolate. I would like to grow cocoa one day in my life, OK (laughter)?

CHARLES: Are you doing this for the money or for the enjoyment?

CRUZADO: Well, let me tell you. I'm doing this for the enjoyment, but of course if I get some money, I will enjoy it a lot more.

CHARLES: Word of this new venture has spread. About 200 other farmers in Puerto Rico have called Cortes out of the blue asking how to get their hands on these new trees. They all want to help bring back chocolate making on their own Caribbean island. Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAC SONG, "SIXTEEN")

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