FOOD & DRINK: Sweet dreams are made of this

Chocolate: possibly the best thing in life. But to taste it at its finest, you wouldn't go to a hacienda in Venezuela. Or would you?
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The Independent Culture
In a dank Venezuelan rainforest, the ground mulchy underfoot, cacao farmer Billy Esser pulls a swollen red gourd from a tree and slices it open. Inside, a clump of slimy white cacao beans nestles in a fetid- smelling pulp. "Who says money doesn't grow on trees?" Billy laughs. Looking at this unpromising goo, it's hard to imagine that it's shortly destined to reappear on tables across Europe, in the form of chocolate treats. But it's also reassuring, as the guzzling season approaches, to be reminded that sinful chocolate originates from an innocent fruit.

Cacao - and in its processed form, chocolate - is probably the second most addictive crop to come from South America. But unlike coca, its narcotic rival, cacao is good for you, at least in its pure form. Pounded and mixed with water and spices, it's been used as a sustaining, energy- boosting drink by the indigenous people of Venezuela for thousands of years. It was only when Europeans got their hands on the bitter powder, and combined it with sugar and a variety of other additives, that it began to acquire its reputation as a dietary demon.

For those curious to explore the origins of their favourite confectionery, a stay on a Venezuelan cacao plantation offers the chance to go directly to the source. Plantation owner Billy Esser has opened up his farmhouse and offers the ultimate holiday package for chocoholics. As well as presenting unlimited opportunities to sample the hacienda's produce, he organises excursions to secluded local beaches, and leads treks into Venezuela's heartland - from the floating villages of the Orinoco Delta to the table mountains of the Gran Sabana. Visitors to Hacienda Bukare stay in one of four simply furnished bedrooms attached to the farmhouse, overlooking the lush canopy of jungly vegetation in whose shadow the cacao trees flourish.

In the morning you're woken with a cup of Bukare's own 100 per cent pure drinking chocolate, and at breakfast, home-made bread is offered with ambrosial chocolate syrup. While you relax in a hammock on a veranda trailed with jacaranda and hibiscus, the delicious bitter-sweet aroma of roasting cacao beans drifts past as the staff turn the latest crop into a selection of home-made chocolate products, sold at the door and to local hotels. For dinner, you sit down to a meal of fresh local fish, served with avocados still warm from the trees outside. And to finish, there will, of course, be chocolate, poured silkily over bananas or transformed into an aromatic rum-based liqueur. The hacienda is on the Paria peninsula, a lush strip of Caribbean coastline east of Caracas.which is largely undiscovered by the tourists who flock to nearby Margarita Island. Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas a few miles up the coast, and nothing much appears to have happened in the area since.

From Rio Cariba - once an affluent cacao-exporting port, but now a sleepy fishing town - a single road carves its way through the mountains to the peninsula's tip. At regular intervals, the mountains open up to reveal sandy palm-fringed beaches.

By the side of the road, between scrappy villages, are the lush cacao plantations that once produced the bulk of the world's chocolate crop. Venezuelan cacao (it becomes chocolate when it's processed with sugar) has always been highly-prized, but the introduction elsewhere of cheaper methods and easier-to-raise strains has meant that the glory days of the 19th-century gran-cacaos have passed, and mass production in countries such as Cote d'Ivoire and Brazil now feeds the world's appetite. Venezuela's global market share may have dwindled to just two per cent but its output is treasured by discerning manufacturers in Italy and France, and most of the local harvest is still exported to Europe's finest chocolatiers.

Curiously, chocolate doesn't appear to play much of a part in the lives of the locals whose income depends on it. Coffee has long since replaced chocolate as the national drink, and stopping for a cold beer at a roadside shack on the edge of Paria's largest plantation, I notice there are no chocolate bars among the sugary snacks and packets of crisps displayed behind the counter. The nearest thing on offer are Oreo cookies, a degraded choc-lite biscuit made in the US. It's a little like going to Bordeaux and finding the locals swigging Vimto.

Occasionally, though, you'll spot a little knot of beans left to dry on the road by a smallholder - the kind of sight that mystified the Spanish conquistadors, who at first mistook the precious seeds for animal droppings, and dismissed the oily drink as fit only for pigs. The locals still process their small hauls in more or less the same way as their ancestors did, and a version of that basic method is used by larger producers such as Hacienda Bukare.

After picking, the beans are left to ferment in sacks with their sugary pulp, producing the characteristic bitter flavour. Then they're dried in the sun for five to six days, roasted, winnowed and pulverised into an oily paste - half of the weight of each bean is made up of fat. The cocoa butter is extracted, and used to make white chocolate,or sold on to the cosmetics industry leaving a dry, intensely bitter powder - the cacao solids. It's these solids thatform the basis of the typical chocolate bar, though the proportion might range from 15 per cent in junk brands up to 70 per cent in the superfine variety, with purists affirming that nothing containing less than 50 per cent cocoa solids has the right to call itself chocolate.

Back at Hacienda Bukare, Carmen, one of Billy's staff, works the cacao paste with her hands which grow oily as the mixture warms and the cocoa butter oozes out. After mixing the paste with powdered milk, sugar, nutmeg and vanilla essence, she rolls it into small bonbons, which look dainty, but taste grainy and malty, with the bitter-sweet kick you would normally get only from the finest commercial chocolate.

Research has found chemical compounds in chocolate, including serotonin, which give it mood-altering properties, helping to relieve depression and stress, and enhancing pleasurable activities. Nibbling another homemade truffle among the hummingbirds on Hacienda Bukare's veranda, after a day spent on a glorious beach, it's very hard to disagree.

Hacienda Bukare is exhibiting at the International Festival of Chocolate (see Truffler opposite for details) and can be contacted via Geodyssey (0171-281 7788)