Gourmet chocolate sweetens bitter times in Venezuela

VIDEO: REUTERS

CARACAS (REUTERS) - It has a similar colour to oil, but its taste is much sweeter, especially at this bitter time for Venezuela.

Gourmet Venezuelan chocolate is giving a lifeline to local entrepreneurs.

Sprinkled with sea salt or aromatic fruits from the Amazon, it's a hit in high-end shops from Panama City to London and Miami.

"It's a different type of chocolate, it's got its own, very distinct origin and a specific Venezuelan flavour," explains chocolate producer Jose Franceschi. "And it's not just the taste, but its aroma too. Its smell. There's chocolate from other places that doesn't have a smell. It has no odour."

Franceschi says Venezuela was the world's leading cocoa producer at the end of the 18th century, but it was quickly overshadowed by the rise of the oil at the beginning of the 20th century.

It now produces only a fraction of its mightier neighbours such as Ecuador and Brazil.

But the recent launch of 20 new businesses bodes well for the sector.

"We think that our real Venezuelan oil is this, cocoa. We aren't strong with production but we are strong when it comes to quality, because of the fine aroma of the cocoa, because of its smooth nature," says Nancy Silva, another chocolate producer.

Venezuelan red tape makes large-scale exports nearly impossible for small businesses.

And with bars selling locally at some 50 cents each - more than a week of minimum wage salary - the privilege is just for the shrinking elite, while the rest of the country struggles with empty shelves.