MANAGUA – In surreptitious defiance of the Nestle headquarters across the street from his old Managua home, comic book designer Carlos Mann bought 10 pounds of cacao and began experimenting with chocolate recipes in his kitchen.
“It was an obsession,” he said.
Mann, 33, plunged into the depths of Mesoamerica’s rich cacao tradition like the gluttonous Augustus Gloop into Willy Wonka’s river of chocolate. For four months he made, ate and lived chocolate in hopes of unwrapping the golden ticket to the gourmet food’s uncorrupted pre-Columbian roots.
Modernity had turned the most indigenous Nahuatl dietary staple into an export commodity enjoyed only in developed countries, Mann lamented.
“We always export the best stuff we make. We have to reverse that. We have to consume the best ourselves so we know what quality is,” said the Nicaraguan-born entrepreneur.
Inspired by the family-run model of the U.S. fudge industry, the bilingual video game designer aspires to bring chocolate back to Nicaragua by eliminating the need for costly industrial processing machines. His model seeks to reinvent the chocolate shop, where customers come to buy his fresh, moist, often creative chocolate blends, such as dried jalapeño red pepper chocolates.
The result of Mann’s early cacao experiments is now a budding chocolate business that the self-taught chocolate maker hopes will eventually democratize the chocolate industry. His four-year-old Momotombo Chocolates now produces some 2,000 boxes of chocolates a month, offers 50 different flavors and employs a dozen Nicaraguans. The Managua-based company recently opened a shop in the AugustoC.SandinoInternationalAirport and in December opened a third chocolate shop next to Granada’s central park, from where the company will offer tours of the cacao plantation.
Momotombo chocolates aren’t tempered like chocolate bars, a process whereby extra cacao butter is added as a preservative.
Because they’re not pumped with fat and sugar, Momotombo chocolates provide a succulent mouthful without sacrificing the healthiness of the earthy cacao, which is high in magnesium and antioxidants.
The unusually fresh and moist bonbons can be blended with other moist products, such as liquors and fruits. Hence Mann’s creative concoctions such as the whiskey and banana bonbon.
Mann hopes his flare for experimentation will catch on. He wants to share his business model so other Nicaraguans can start making their own chocolates. He harbors dreams of someday opening a chocolate school.
“If Nicaraguans start to make chocolate, the quality of cacao is going to increase dramatically,” he said.
For three millennia, Mesoamericans have cultivated cacao. Said to have been a drink of nobles, the cacao bean was used by the Aztecs as a form of currency and to pay taxes. In pre-Columbian Nicaragua, Nahuatl peoples used cacao as a base for drinks such as the corn-infused pinolillo.
Spanish conquistador Hernán de Cortes is considered the first European to taste chocolate when Aztec emperor Montezuma greeted him and his army with a cacao-based drink in 1519.
Colonial-era Europeans began importing cacao from Latin America, and since the industrial revolution, chocolate has been processed with increasingly advanced machines – presses, molds, conching machines, cacao de-shellers, among other new equipment.
Today, as cacao production in Nicaragua booms – Nicaragua now produces 1,200 tons annually and exports this year have tripled to $2 million, according to the Nicaraguan Export Processing Center (CETREX) – many Nicaraguans have little clue as to the quality of chocolate that their cacao is producing.
Cacao produced here is exported to European countries such as Germany and Austria, as well as Central American countries, namely El Salvador.
“There’s all this cacao production and no one here had the idea to make artisan chocolate,” said Sonia Argentina Moraga, one of Mann’s three partners in the company.
On a recent afternoon, Moraga was in the chocolate factory in Los Robles in Managua, overseeing five workers who were hand-rolling chocolate balls.
At the small factory’s chocolate shop, Mann stands at the counter wearing a hair
net, assembling a chocolate sampling platter.
The artist’s sleek designs illustrate the colorful chocolate boxes on display. Mann’s aspirations for his enterprise to restore egalitarian virtues to the chocolate industry are underscored by the giddy playfulness of a kid in a candy shop.
The company was named Momotombo, he said, partly because it’s the volcano that’s the most fun to pronounce as a kid.
He looks for excuses to experiment. For Valentine ’s Day, he said, he’ll try mixing roses and chocolates and see what happens.
“If we can, we’ll try to pull off chocolates with rose petals. I have to find pesticide-free roses first,” he said with an ear-to-ear grin.
A firm believer in the quality of Nicaraguan cacao, which he compares to French wine, Mann hopes his passion for one of the world’s most popular flavors will spread here.
He is already seeing signs that it is. A few local artisans recently visited his shop to offer him samples of their own chocolate recipes, suggesting that this post-modern Willy Wonka’s chocolate revolution could be taking root.
“If we succeed, in 20 years from now, there will be a lot of artisan chocolate makers around Nicaragua,” he said.