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Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier - Fine Chocolates Made by Hand

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Cuddling with a sloth

I just returned from a trip to Costa Rica. It was pura vida! This is the latest of several trips to the country. My first trip was in 2008, through an Ecole Chocolat tour that included visits to CATIE (a tropical agriculture research center), an organic cacao farm, and several smaller cacao farms stewarded by indigenous Bribri and Shiroles of the Valle de Talamanca. It was the first time the tour was offered and I signed up immediately.

As they say it was love at first sight! On the larger farm northeast of San Jose, Finmac, I learned that there were two researchers from UW-Madison on the farm just a week before. They were studying biodiversity focusing on sloths and agroforestry. When I returned home, I met the researchers. They encouraged me to help the Costa Rican cacao farmers in anyway I could.

Over the last three years, it has been both heartening and frustrating to see one step forward, two steps back for many of the farmers. But I keep coming back because of the people I have met. They are warm, hardworking and dedicated. Many of them feel like family now.

At Finmac, the women of the farm have formed a working group called Amazilia to make chocolate bars to sell in San Jose. The group is named after the hummingbirds that hover around the tree opposite their workshop. I have done several workshops with Amazilia. It’s always a wonderful experience.

Visiting with the Amazilia women

On subsequent trips, I have visited the Upala area near the Nicaraguan border. Cacao used to be a major crop in this region until a disease called monillia wiped out 60 to 80 percent of the trees about 20 years ago. The farmers have been actively replanting and trying to revive that way of life. The women in the area also wanted to make chocolate. To help out, I donated a tempering machine, molds, wrappers, various tools and a laptop. I also gave workshops over the past two years, teaching them how to make bars from their cacao beans.

After several fits and starts, I sadly report that they are having a difficult time getting organized and finding a central location that is cool enough to make chocolate. For my efforts, I was awarded an honorary membership in the Upala Organic Cacao Growers Cooperative. Unfortunately, this group is also having growing pains. There are issues that need to be worked out among the farmers.

Amazilia chocolate bars

Since the Upala women were not making use of the equipment, I loaned it to Amazilia. The women were thrilled to have equipment that could help streamline their workload. Unfortunately, like all machinery, it broke down after much use. While in the repair shop, a critical piece was lost. Only after this recent visit did I understand what they needed to get the machine working again. Luckily, there is a student working on the farm testing an organic pesticide made from citrus. Her parents will be visiting her in May and if all works out they can bring the spare part.

If I have learned anything from my work in Costa Rica, it’s that nothing is simple and straightforward. But that’s okay. That’s how you learn and grow. I support and encourage these women because I can see the sense of pride and empowerment that making chocolate provides. The Amazilia women invest their profits into the children of their small community. Last Christmas, they gave a party for the kids,. Each child received a unique gift–they were overjoyed. Whether you’re eating it or making it, I really believe chocolate is good for soul. Life isn’t easy for the Upala and Amazilia women, but they are trying to make a difference. That means a lot.

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