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The winner, projected on a big screen at the head of the room, held back her tears. Journalists passed tissues and one jury member couldn’t stop the flow as she spoke – the moderator at the right of the room also struggled. We all sat listening to a story: the story of chef María Fernanda Di Giacobbe.
It’s a story that started over 10 years ago and one that spans the entire cacao industry in a country twisted by social and economic turmoil. One that sits alongside violence and pride; depravity and determination – and a story that includes the systematic dismantling of entire infrastructures. But fortunately, as with all the best stories, it’s one that ends with hope.
It was told through a crackly connection over the computer, as María Fernanda Di Giacobbe – freshly crowned as the winner of the first ever Basque World Culinary Prize (BWCP), a newly created award devoted to exposing chefs who are impacting society through gastronomy – explained the inspirational projects she has started in Venezuela.
She recounted how she grew up in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, learning from her father and aunties how to make Venezuelan sweets. “They were experts at making iconic sweets … I was lucky to be raised in a family full of people that cooked,” she said. In 1990 the family opened their first restaurant and quickly expanded. At one point they managed 16 small cafes in Caracas, but in 2002 the national oil strike threw the country’s economy into a spin with GDP falling nearly 30% and the family had to close all but one.
It was around this time that a trip to Barcelona for a chocolate exhibition changed everything for Giacobbe. “I was surprised to see how these prestigious labels of chocolate showed pictures of Chuao (the Venezuela producer zone) as proof of their quality. In their talks, Italian chocolatiers underlined how Venezuelan cacao was one of the best in the world. I went back to Venezuela, with all the (family) restaurants closed, but with the aim of transforming my life and starting a bomboneria where we could share this famous cacao – this cacao that was so impossible for others to get. For the first time, bonbons were made not with pistachio or almonds, but with passion fruit, mango and guaba.”
The sweet shop was the start, but as promised, this is a story that touches the entire cacao chain, from education to exportation. Kakao – the name given to Giacobbe’s first shop – was the start of the entire Bean to Bar movement in Venezuelan chocolate – she just didn’t know it at the time. She also didn't know she was set to help empower hundreds of woman in her country to pursue their own careers as cacao entrepreneurs.
We have been close to losing a country.
After mastering bonbons, “they were inedible at the beginning”, the shop also started doubling as a lab where Giacobbe and her team would research cacao, how it was being processed and how it could be improved, and in 2008 they started to work more closely with the producers in Barlovento – a place full of cacao plantations. She said it was visiting these producers that led to her biggest undertaking yet, “When you get to a plantation and the people say ‘we are poor’ but you see that are very rich – it’s this idea to change their mind.” From this she founded Cacao de Origen, a project that works with every step of cacao production to optimise the process in every possible way.
And it’s this project, the one with the widest social implications across the cacao industry in Venezuela, that really convinced the jury, comprised of some of the world’s leading food experts and chefs, to pick Giacobbe from a shortlist of 20 finalists to receive an award quickly dubbed the Nobel Prize of Gastronomy by the press.
As food scientist and writer Harold McGee, one of the jury members, said: “She was working on a project that addressed the whole chain of production and of gastronomy. Some projects had more to do with training cooks, but this started with plants growing in the ground, tended by farmers who generally speaking get the short end of the stick in every way. Helping them to connect with the advanced knowledge that science gives us all today, but which they had no access to, helps them grow better, grow more productively, to help them find disease resistant strains.”
Every time we plant a cacao seed, we project the future of Venezuela
On top of this, Giacobbe started a cacao educational program at Simon Bolivar University where 1,500 students have graduated, over 90% of them women, many who go on to create their own businesses centred around what was once the country’s first ever currency.
Giacobbe built this through a time of constant, throbbing uncertainty and she sees cacao as the heart of her country, something deep, cultural and significant, something that can help many prosper, if only they weren’t hindered by their own government. “We have important problems with exporting seeds,” said Giacobbe, the first time she started to well up on the screen. “The Venezuelan government kidnapped all our powers and public institutions. They only give permits to their people or friends to make and export cacao, you have to have around 100 permits and bureaucratic things. It reminds [me of] The Trial of Kafka … Our government prefers to have people on their knees with an open hand, ready to receive from them all they need. They put universities and hospitals in emergency states with salaries and inflation. From 2005, plantations have been systematically burned and filled with violence. They are being invaded, nationalised and then abandoned. Big land extensions where we cultivated rice, corn, caña sugar are not producing. This, and many other circumstances, make it more difficult to find – and I’m sorry for being so honest – one kilo of sugar than one kilo of cocaine."
"Everything is made so you don't grow on your own. This is why this movement is so powerful, because it carries a message of freedom and autonomy, we say ‘I’m free and we depend only on ourselves.’ Its an independent movement of hardworking people that believes in family and gets connected with all the elements of the cacao chain, including universities, research institutes and consumers. It's a movement that underlines our condition of people with dignity that will keep on planting hope for the future. That’s why its energy is so contagious.”
She left those in the audience under no illusion of how hard the job has been and how dire the situation has become in her “beautiful” home country. “We have been close to losing a country. But I don't want you to see this as a drama, I would like you to see the joy that's in every single region that produces cacao, every day. The joy that’s alive in projects such as this, that connects us all, not only inside our country, but with people all around: the proof is in the Basque Culinary World Prize. It’s giving us the chance to talk about a country called Venezuela, 'tierra de gracia' (The land of Grace).
“Every time we plant a cacao seed, as a prayer, we repeat: we project the future of Venezuela. Every time we 'temper' chocolate, in difficult conditions, we 'temper' our spirit, and every time we make a bonbon we build the country we want to live in, the country we love."
“It takes just a trip to Venezuela through cacao, to realise that Venezuela is not the country in the news, but the Venezuela of people working around the cocoa, a fruit that tells our story as no other, that identifies us. That’s why this award restores our identity. Restores our soul, so beaten in recent years. Restores our faith in what people together can achieve, because it's clear that, through gastronomy, and working every day with enthusiasm and faith, we can rebuild a country so rich that everything blooms. If you plant a seed, it bears fruit.”