The fragrance of freshly ground chocolate being moved from one room to another is my most vivid memory of visiting Cancun. The aroma is similar to buttered toast with dark chocolate, and it faded and waxed when staff walked through from the refining area next door. This event, however, did not take place at Ah Cacao, a prominent chocolate-centric cafe in the area; rather, it occurred approximately an hour south, at Pasin de Cacao, a modest chocolate factory in Playa del Carmen.
PDC is a small chocolate business started in 2019 by Veracruz native Roberto Reta as a platform for showcasing Mexico excellent taste cacao. Following many years of working in the oil and petroleum industries, Roberto moved to Playa with his small family, hoping to find employment in a sector that would enable him to help develop the town. He started transporting cacao from his cousin’s farm in Tabasco in 2016, hoping to connect with local chocolate makers.
After many years of attempting to get a fair price for the cacao, Roberto concluded that they would be better off processing it themselves. Evidently, the greatest way to get people interested in a local crop is to make it into something delectable, so he’s been doing just that. He erected a chocolate production facility just south of downtown Playa, where you can now experience true Mexican chocolate handcrafted from bean to bar directly on the premises.
Yet, as most small company owners are aware, the previous several years have not been easy to be the boss. Roberto has worked tirelessly over the past three years to market his distinctive Mexican chocolates at seminars, tastings, and even conferences (pre-pandemic). Nevertheless, although the world equates Mexico with chocolate, you may be unaware of how intimately their histories are connected.
Cacao and chocolate from Mexico
For thousands of years, Mexicans have farmed and enjoyed cacao. Proof of this can still be found on vessels pulled from the soil, and experts have even uncovered kinds of cocoa growing in Mexico that are not seen anywhere else. Cacao was so valuable to the Mesoamerican peoples that it was employed as cash and pulverized into ceremonial drinks drank at weddings, funerals, and even ritual sacrifices.
The Europeans transported this native Mexico cacao to the Philippines, which was already a Spanish colony at the time. Throughout history, regardless of where it was transported, the dominating method in which chocolate was drunk was as an unsweetened beverage that bears little resemblance to the sweet milky drink we know today. Cacao and chocolate have a complicated history in Mexico, including trade routes, slavery, and culinary traditions, as well as intergenerational livelihoods, like with Roberto and his cousin.
However, Mexican cocoa output fell precipitously during the 2000s. Even in recent years, most domestic cacao has been under-processed and sold in bulk, since Mexican processors are compelled to purchase the local crop before importing foreign cacaos. This maintains prices relatively high, causing a little rise in output lately, but many farmers are still seeking for methods to raise the value of their commodities.
Yet, greater charges come with superior processing, and there are currently relatively few organizations prepared to pay the extra for this quality. Chocolate has become a popular flavour for sugar and milk in Mexico, as it has almost everywhere else in the globe. Yet, numerous chocolate manufacturers are attempting to provide better solutions in terms of sugar and milk, as well as for farmers. This comes at a time when food allergies are on the increase and interest in regional cultural heritage is on the rise.
Mexico’s Bean to Bar Chocolate
As of this writing, the only other chocolate stores in Cancun are one location of Oh Cacao, a local chocolate caf franchise, and a couple chocolate museum experiences tailored to visitors. But here’s why you should skip them all and go straight to PDC: there are several alternatives for learning how chocolate is created, but the difference is in the quality of materials. If you use low-quality cacao, like most farmers do across the globe, the chocolate will taste flat and bitter, and you’ll leave the workshop thinking that’s what true chocolate tastes like.
For now, there is simply no motivation in the Yucatan and across Mexico to invest the additional time on meticulous processing when you have a set buying price, and cacao takes a lot of care to taste wonderful. But, boutique artisan chocolate producers such as Pasin de Cacao and Cancun’s KiNeek Chocolate are attempting to shift this dynamic by obtaining cacao directly from farmers and paying a premium for adequate post-harvest processing. Farming is typically a family business, as is chocolate manufacture, and although a very tiny percentage of families choose to combine both, it is a distinct oddity.
Wolter Chocolates in Tabasco is one of the few, the chocolate brand for family-owned Hacienda La Luz, which is currently in its third generation of tree-to-bar chocolate production. They’ve been doing it since the 1950s, and they’ve been cultivating cocoa for much longer. After all this time, the government is finally taking note, as Mexico has been investing in the restoration of its cocoa industry for almost a decade. In order to do this, they have enlisted the assistance of cacao and chocolate specialists such as my friend Clay Gordon of The Chocolate Life, who introduced me to Wolter Chocolates.
Clay also introduced me to Roberto, and he is one of the few individuals I know who has attended the enormously celebrated Festival del Chocolate Tabasco. Tabasco, the country’s principal cacao-growing area, is a major supply for most Mexican chocolate manufacturers, including Roberto. He is presently working with two more distinct origins from southern Mexico following a couple International Chocolate Awards triumphs.
Cacao Pasion in PDC
Robertos is also striving to gradually extend his product range with the support of a small staff of workers on the Riviera Maya. At the present, the collection seems to include every imaginable use for every portion of the cacao fruit. We were amazed by the amount of variables he decided to experiment with when we came in for a sampling. He opted not to utilize milk or wheat products and to avoid nuts from the start, but even within those restrictions, his offers vary widely.
He was busy working with a rainbow-filled chocolate bar (almond mylk white chocolate) when we came, and he told us which goods were fan favorites, such as spicy chocolate shot glasses and chocolate-covered rice crispies. It wasn’t until I tried every product on the shelf that the shop’s name became clear. The emphasis is on the cacao, not on producing chocolate from it. Each item features just one aspect of cacao, whether it’s roasted nibs, only the fat, or the distinct taste notes combined with local chilies.
Just one variety of chocolate is currently sugar-free, but all of his goods are allergen-friendly (certification pending), vegan, and sourced locally. He even goes to the market to get the oranges for the candied orange rinds! The cocoa pod stickers surrounding the space above the workshop door to the dried cacao beans around the bathroom mirror are all cacao-themed. He even sells miniature metates.
Mayan influence can be seen everywhere, from the corner built to explain how chocolate was originally created to the brand’s own emblem. Roberto even got a tattoo of the emblem, which displays a full outline of a monkey staring at a cocoa bean, on his forearm. He stated that the artwork pays reference to the Mayan tradition that a monkey transmitted cocoa to people by distributing seeds and causing the trees to flourish.
In the future, Robertos hopes that PDC will play a part in the growth of the Mexican chocolate sector. He has also collaborated to develop national free-from targets for allergy warning labels, as well as working locally to raise the share of directly-traded cacao in Mexico. Pasin de Cacao is the greatest chocolate store in Playa Del Carmen and is part of a small but rapidly increasing network of Mexican bean to bar chocolate manufacturers. This is not only my view.
My family and I spent approximately two hours in Roberto’s store, speaking with him until he had to go to arrange a tasting. A Norwegian couple who evidently lives nearby popped in just before we departed to get some cocoa butter and a bag of 100% chocolate. They informed us they’d been purchasing their morning chocolate from Roberto for years, and that it was the purest and finest in the area. I’d have to agree based on my own experience.
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