Chocolate is the extraordinary and laborious product from cacao, processed into a gem for indulgence to all who enjoy eating it! As I reminisced about the early years of my life living in my beloved Venezuela, I thought fondly about the piece of chocolate that every Venezuelan loves to have: the medium-sized, lustrous ball of rich milk chocolate with a hazelnut inside that is an icon to Venezuela’s history of chocolate and culture – Toronto, made by Savoy. Sadly, the Toronto is no longer as exquisite as it used to be; its quality started decreasing in the 90s. Savoy is an established chocolate company in Venezuela. In this country, the quality of the chocolate industry has gradually declined when the political and economic faces of the country started to change more notoriously and up to this day, they are still carrying severe consequences. How is it possible that for Venezuela, a country that produces the best cacao in the world, the quality of manufacturing chocolate is decreasing?
I believe that this is a political issue and to understand it, it is important to refer to the political history of Venezuela in the last twenty years. There has always been corruption in the Venezuelan government. However, Venezuelans have endured very radical challenges in the political, social and economic areas since the late president Hugo Chavez took office in 1998 who was followed by his successor Nicolas Maduro. It has been with this duo and their political and economic policies that have broken the foundation, the base, the pillars and the structure that sustain the country and its citizens. Many of the main issues that are seen today are caused by the dramatic massive inflation rates that soar every day, aggravated by the devaluation of the Venezuelan currency, el bolivar (1B). The threat of a steadily devaluating currency brought fears of massive capital fight and flight to quality (BBC2013). In theory, the government offered businesses the purchase of the “preferential dollar”, which in other words is American dollars at a much lower and fixed rate than what is sold in the black market. However, when businesses submitted the requirements to obtain the currency to import materials and goods, the actual truth came out: there is no such preferential dollar. This policy was built on lies so that business owners were forced to purchase dollars in the black market so that they could supposedly import the goods as well as purchase materials and ingredients for production.
Although Venezuela’s oil revenue was so lucrative during the Chavez administration and his predecessor’s administration, Carlos Andres Perez, Chavez proclaimed cacao as a very strategic national product in 2010 (Sputnick 2010). Yet, the economies of these two products are incomparable because of their quantity production, time and revenues. Venezuela is known as the country with the best cacao of the world and owning the most precious and the most sought of all: the criollo. Maricel Prescilla, author of The New Taste of Chocolate, states “it is one of the most harmonious and symphonic cacaos. Even the lowliest cacao in Venezuela is fine cacao” (2015). The criollo cacao is cultivated mainly in the town of Chuao which is comprised of a small village of fishermen and it is reachable only by boat from the coastal shores of Choroni. In the class Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food at Harvard Extension School, Dr. Carla Martin lectures students about the unique experience of this farm where the process of criollo cacao is still processed as it was done in the 1500s and 1600s, all through manual work. It is important to know that Venezuela has various regions of cacao farms and not all these farms are equally the same. They vary in climate, geography, care, irrigation, geology and soil conditions that interact with the plant’s genetics. This concept is called Terroir; different terroir, different flavors in chocolate (spring 2017).
I recently spoke with Mr. Victor Guama, a cocoa worker in one of Chuao’s cacao farms. During the phone conversation, he informed me about the process used on this cacao, which is mainly done by women. It is also very important to note that Chuao has many cacao farms where the employees have been and continue to be comprised of generations of families. It seems that they are born to carry on the tradition! He happily says that his mother worked in the cacao fields for forty-four years and his aunt has been working there for thirty-three years. I can sense the pride in his voice when he said that they “are so proud to work for the best and finest cacao in the world, especially when it is produced in our hometown of Chuao, Venezuela. It is very hard work, and we care about it.” In the farm, there are approximately 124 women who harvest the cacao pods, extract the seeds and pulp, begin the fermentation cycle, put them to dry in the sun, and sort and bag the beans so that they can be transported by the 10 men who do the heavy lifting in the farm. Sophie and Michael Coe, authors of The True History of Chocolate write “through fermentation and drying , the cacao’s pulp-surrounded seeds are converted into nibs ready for roasting and grinding into chocolate liquor (105)” Interestingly, Victor also informed me that 75% of the cacao production is sold by contracts to Europe, especially in France and 25% stays in Chuao to make artisanal chocolate. Victor proudly talks about the excellent quality of the criollo cacao harvested in this area, pointing out that the key of its fine quality and distinctive flavor is due to the irrigation system done with the water coming down from the river. Surprisingly, he also said that as cacao workers, the previous administrations before president Chavez never provided job security and benefits to the workers, but Chavez did. Sadly, Chavez’s successor, president Nicolas Maduro eliminated them. These cacao workers are uncared for and underprivileged because the income they receive does not compensate the amount of work and hours they put into the process of the best cacao in the world, especially during the current regimen and difficult time that Venezuela is going through.
Whether or not Savoy produces its own cacao is unknown, however, since 2012 they offer Plan-Cacao Nestle as an integral support program to cacao producers that encircles the producer, family and community as it is shown in its website. Although it presents a list of objectives, it projects vague information. Savoy claims in its website that they make their chocolates with the best cacao in the world, but this claim leads to unanswered questions such as where the cacao comes from.
I would look at Savoy’s history. Savoy opened its doors in Caracas, Venezuela in 1941 by three Swiss brothers. In 1988, Nestlé, a transnational corporation, acquired Savoy and substituted the original crown logo above the name of Savoy for the Nestlé logo on all the packaging. The Savoy company is considered a Venezuelan patrimony and is the primary chocolate company. Even with the decline in quality in recent decades, Savoy chocolates continue to be loved by consumers. Although there is a significant difference between the chocolates that were manufactured more than twenty years ago versus those that are manufactured today, I believe that the problem is not the cacao itself, but more so the quality of the manufacturing process of the various products. It is here where the politics of food plays a very important role in the production and quality control of Savoy manufacturing because the true ingredients are not available. Regardless, there are very noticeable characteristics in the chocolate that a fine Venezuelan chocolate bar should not have which are shown in the image below such as white marks and a bland brown color.
Through the years of the industrialization of chocolate, Savoy is well known for the following products: Cri-Cri, made of crispy rice covered with chocolate, Bolero, a crunchy corn covered with chocolate, and Ping-Pong, the classic crunchy peanut covered in chocolate. Yet, the most popular of all the products is Toronto. It is the one that most Venezuelans, especially those living out of the country, remember with excitement and nostalgia. It is the one that brings memories of relationships between family, friends, school and communities to our lives. It is the one that is always well-received as a gift from relatives and friends coming from Venezuela. I clearly remember the original Toronto as a very rich, fine milk chocolate bombón with a very smooth texture and an impressive satin look that had a deep brown colored hazelnut inside. It melted in my mouth as I ate it, leaving a very pleasant and savoring flavor in my mouth. It was my favorite chocolate! Sadly, this was then. The new Toronto made today from the 90s is tasteless, dry on the outside, and greasy on the inside. It has a boring, bland brown color, breaks into pieces when in my mouth, and its size continues to shrink. Again, a fine piece of Venezuelan chocolate should not have traces of white marks inside as shown in the image below- it almost seems as if the chocolate is old.
There is a large difference between the two eras of Savoy’s chocolate making. My daughter’s generation enjoy and love the new Toronto! When I narrate to them the Toronto of my time, which I used to eat with so much pleasure, they cannot make a connection because they have never tried it and most likely never will. A Savoy retail store located in what used to be a very popular commercial and residential area of Caracas called Boulevard Sabana Grande, used to sell bags of “recortes de chocolate” or “chunks of chocolate.” They were sold by the kilo in clear cellophane bags wrapped in a bow at the top. My job’s office was on the same street side where this Savoy store was and I never failed to buy several bags every quincena or 15 days. Savoy has a long-lived trajectory of a great market and loyal customers who are very proud of these chocolates. Savoy’s trademark, “Con Sabor Venezolano” or “With Venezuelan Flavor” still lays under the oversized Savoy billboard above a building that overlooks the main highway in Caracas, Venezuela. This Savoy sign is equivalent to what the Citgo sign means to Boston!
Savoy remains the chocolate choice of the Venezuelans. They are proud to have an industry that has continuously worked for 75 years, especially since Hugo Chavez expropriated thousands of international investments and production companies in the country, including our own oil companies.
The journalist Ileana Magual from El Universal newspaper writes “One of the icons and jewel in the crown of Venezuelan gastronomy is the cacao, known to be the best in the world. Talking about Venezuela is talking about our unbeatable cacao, our gold vegetable. It used to be shipped, turned into a beverage, and used as an offering and currency by our first settlers who called it ‘the money that grows on trees’” (2015). I hope that the future of the Venezuelan cacao will never vanish because it is a heritage of the land with fertile soil and infinite roots in the trees. As Marisel Presilla writes “where there is cacao, there is life. No tree has more to teach us than cacao, when we take the trouble to see it in its own environmental and biological context (7).” Cacao is the gross domestic product that makes the economy of cacao communities and their generations work for the love of cacao. Based on my research, I do not believe that Savoy uses Venezuelan cacao made in places such as Chuao, however, it could be possible that their chocolates would improve in quality if they did. I wish that my daughter’s generation and the generations to come will someday experience the delightful pleasure of eating the real Toronto just as I dream of Venezuela returning back to the versatile and stable country it once was. Until then, I will continue searching for the chocolate that reminds me of all the fond memories from my childhood in Venezuela!
S.D., Coe, 2013; M. D., Coe, 2013. The True History of Chocolate. London, Thames & Hudson, Ltd
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. New York: Teen Speed Press, 2009. pg., 7
Prof. Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food. Personal Communication. Harvard Extension School. Spring 2017.
Victor Guama. Telephone interview. May 6, 2017.
Bulmer-Thomas, Victor. 2013, March 6. Analysis: How Hugo Chavez changed Venezuela. Retrieved from
“Chávez Proclama Cacao “Producto Estratégico” Para Venezuela” 1-11-2010. Retrieved from
Dreier H., and Marquez V. 2015, April 29. Venezuela produces some of the world’s best chocolate. But profiting from it is another story. Retrieving from
Magual, Ileana. 2015, May 19. Venezuelan cocoa, the best in the world. Retrieved from
Image # 1 Carré Savoy. Retrieved from https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/9d/13/4a/9d134af30b854da562d9ba74314b3802.jpg
Image # 2 Toronto Savoy. Retrieved from http://www.cuandoerachamo.com/wp-content/uploads/historia-del-toronto.jpg
Image # 3 Savoy billboard