Adriana Pino makes chocolate bars at the +58 Cacao chocolate factory in Caracas
By Corina Pons
CARACAS (Reuters) - In a modest apartment near a Caracas slum, nutrition professor Nancy Silva and four aids spread rich, dark Venezuelan cocoa on a stone counter to make chocolate bars to be sold in local shops that cater to the crisis-hit country's dwindling elite.
Like some 20 recently launched Venezuelan businesses, Silva uses the country's aromatic cocoa to make gourmet bars of the kind that can fetch more than $10 each in upscale shops in Paris or Tokyo.
The oil-rich but recession-devastated nation's Byzantine bureaucracy makes large-scale exports nearly impossible for small businesses.
As a result, most of her bars are sold locally for less than one U.S. dollar - well out of reach of millions of Venezuelans who earn less than that in a week, but reasonably priced for the well-heeled of an increasingly two-tiered economy.
But entrepreneurs who have launched new Venezuelan chocolatiers in recent years say producing gourmet bars allows them to make a living amid the collapse of a socialist economic system - and dream of exports as a golden opportunity down the road.
"Our real oil is cocoa," said Silva, owner of the chocolatier Kirikire that in 2014 won an award from the prestigious Salon du Chocolat fair in Paris. "In Europe, they're snatching up these bars."
Silva faces constant operational challenges due to hyperinflation and Soviet-style product shortages. But these are offset by steady access to high-quality aromatic cocoa from a cocoa farm in eastern Venezuela owned by her family.
Her bars are sold in high-end Caracas grocery stores, delis and liquor stores, where everything from staple products to luxury goods are amply available to the well-heeled - in contrast to the long lines and bare shelves of most shops.
Silva is now focused on getting her chocolate to France, where she once sold a single kilo of her chocolate for the equivalent of 80 euros ($96), which is today the equivalent of five years of minimum wage salary in Venezuela.
Standing in her way are a range of permits such as customs authorizations and sanitary inspections that take months in Venezuela's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy.
The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Venezuela was the world's leading cocoa producer at the end of the 18th century when it was still a Spanish colony, according to Jose Franceschi, who has written books about cocoa and whose great-grandfather founded the Venezuela's gourmet Franceschi chocolate brand.
But the cocoa trade was overshadowed by the rise of the oil industry in the early 20th century. Critics say it was further weakened by state takeovers under late President Hugo Chavez, who boosted state involvement in the economy as part of promises to create a society of equals.
But since the crash of oil markets, Venezuela has become a sharply divided society where oil engineers and public hospital doctors rarely make as much as $50 a month while a small group citizens with access to even modest amounts of hard currency can afford fine dining and gourmet products.
BEAN TO BAR
Output of 16,000 tonnes per year is less than 1 percent of the global total, and less than 10 percent of the production of regional heavyweights Brazil and Ecuador.
Many gourmet bars made in the United States now prominently advertise the use of Venezuelan cocoa but generally mix in other less-desirable cocoas. Bars made in Venezuela, in contrast, are made with 100 percent local cocoa.
This gives the new Venezuelan chocolatiers a leg up as they tap into the global 'bean-to-bar' movement, in which chocolate makers oversee the entire process of turning cocoa fruit into sellable treats.
On the second floor of an old mansion in Caracas, economist and chef Giovanni Conversi has been making specialty chocolate for two years under the name Mantuano.
Sprinkled with sea salt or aromatic fruits from the Amazon, the chocolate bars are a hit in London, Miami and Panama City in specialty chocolate stores or shops that specialize in Latin American food.
He and four assistants produce 9,000 bars a month in Caracas. He has opened a factory in Argentina that buys cocoa from small-scale producers like Yoffre Echarri, who two decades ago inherited his grandfather's plantation in the beach town of Caruao.
He opens the fruit to remove the beans and the accompanying sweet white pulp, which has a strong aroma of tropical fruit and then ferments the mixture in plastic bags buried underground.
That process retains more aroma than the traditional method of fermenting in wooden boxes.
He sells the beans to Venezuelan chocolatiers for less than $1 per kilo, about half the international price.
"Clients can't get enough. Those who three months ago were asking for five kilos now call for 50," said Echarri.
Many small chocolatiers only manage to get products to foreign markets by carrying them in suitcases on commercial flights, though well-established brands such as El Rey have formal export operations to the United States and Europe.
In Japan, El Rey is represented by the food division Japanese trading house Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Still, some 1,700 people have recently studied artisanal chocolate at the Simon Bolivar University.
"Everyone wants to give it a shot," said Rosa Spinosa, the head of the program created two years ago.
($1 = 0.8363 euros)
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Christian Plumb and Lisa Shumaker)