In Venezuela, a country on the brink of collapse from a crippling food shortage, a quiet but swiftly growing group of female entrepreneurs has poured their hopes for the future into a chocolate-covered, fruit bonbon. The woman credited with setting this powerful movement in motion was honored at gala event in San Sebastian last week, attended by some of the most influential chefs in the world.
It is a big dream packed into a small bite-sized confectionery.
But for chef and chocolatier Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe, the inaugural recipient of the Basque Culinary World Prize, the notion of solving the food crisis with a luxury food item makes sense given Venezuela’s long history of cacao production.
Last week, Di Giacobbe accepted the award pitched as the Nobel Prize of the food world, for having empowered 8,500 of her fellow countrywomen in a poetic story that marries two Venezuelan culinary traditions and has taken on a life of its own.
The award, launched this year, recognizes chefs who’ve improved society through food. Di Giacobbe was announced as the winner in July.
When Di Giacobbe opened her chocolate shop Kakao in Caracas in 2004, the idea was to pair local Criollo cacao beans – among the most prized in the world – with childhood favorites candied fruits and jellies.
Di Giacobbe trained 30 women to start, during a time when Hugo Chavez was in power. Unbeknownst to her, the chocolates would come to represent more than just a unique Venezuelan confectionery. For one woman, it would allow her to stop being dependent on Chavez’s unemployment stipend and become an independent chocolate entrepreneur.
Invigorated by their new skills, the women would fan out to other communities of their own accord, teaching other women about what they’d learned.
The domino effect would eventually spur Di Giacobbe to open Cacao de Origen, a training space that teaches women how to transform cocoa beans into chocolate.
“It’s not all my work,” Di Giacobbe said in an interview. “When you feel you can change, that you can create a better future, women work with generosity and happiness. This is very beautiful.”
Meanwhile, in light of the deepening food crisis, Di Giacobbe sees a bigger role for cacao in Venezuela.
“Cacao is inside the people of Venezuela. All of our stories, culture, religion are around cacao,” she said.
For centuries, Venezuela was among the biggest cacao producers in the world and became one of the first countries to export the commodity around 300 years ago, she explains.
Then the country shifted to an oil-based economy, and cocoa production shrunk to small-scale, family affairs.
But where it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Venezuela is known for its Criollo cocoa bean, prized among the world’s top chocolatiers for its complex flavors and aromas.
Di Giacobbe believes that resurrecting Venezuela’s cacao production and shifting the economic focus away from oil can help restore pride in a long-lost heritage and place the country on a new, brighter path.
“Cacao is a product that is a vehicle for change.”
Di Giacobbe plans to use the €100,000 award to expand Cacao de Origen and teach students not only about the principles of bean to bar, but how to start their own businesses.