Those who subscribe to the aphorism that it’s the journey, not the destination in life that’s most meaningful, either have a lot of Frequent Flyer Points or have obviously never been to Costa Rica! Chocolatiers, Julio Fernandez Amón and George Soriano took a chance on both to follow their dream.
How then, you might ask, did two Jewish entrepreneurs find their way to the jungles of Costa Rica?
“My family took a very circuitous route, “ laughs historian, environmentalist, and Sibú co-founder, Amón. ” I’m Costa Rican but my grandfather, originally from Turkey, moved to France and Australia, then Brazil when he couldn’t get into the U.S. Marrying in Venezuela, my grandparents travelled to the Dutch colony of Curacao but my grandmother hated it there– too hot- so while tempted by Panama, they finally settled in Costa Rica.”
Montreal-born Soriano, whose mother is Egyptian from Alexandria, was raised in Miami and eventually became a journalist. He travelled to Costa Rica, teaching English and continuing to write travel pieces on the side.
Long before coffee, Costa Ricans drank chocolate but the natural wealth of cacao trees seemed to have been abandoned when foreign companies moved there in the 90s investing in pineapple plantations instead.
When they couldn’t buy quality chocolate in their own country, Amón and Soriano realized the potential of revitalizing the local cocoa industry. However, their new business had to adhere to three non-negotiables: their product had to be organic, hand-made, artisan chocolate from start to finish in Costa Rica and of course, comparable to the standards of the best chocolate produced in Europe.
Already chocolate enthusiasts, it took Amón and Soriano three years to leave their day jobs and commit to their new venture, just in time for the 2008 recession. Their friends and families thought they were crazy.
“I found it ironic,” admits co-founder, Soriano, “that the best chocolatiers are associated with Belgium, France and Switzerland, but do not have naturally growing cacao in their own countries. And yet, here we were, along with cacao from the tropic Americas where the origins of chocolate all began, surrounded by the most abundant supply in the world!”
Their first step was to travel to France and Italy to immerse themselves in study to become Master Chocolatiers. On their return to Costa Rica they extensively researched cacao production, travelling to small villages and sourcing the finest bean-producing plantations that adhered to their vision.
“And then Eureka! “ says Soriano. “On a family-owned organic plantation on Costa Rica’s Atlantic slope, we found fine cacao flourishing under the protective fronds of laurel and plantain. The farmers were expertly fermenting, drying and roasting the beans onsite. They are also certified sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance that means employees are paid a fair wage and well managed which is extremely important to us. All our dark chocolate is certified organic by Costa Rica’s USDA affiliate Eco-LOGICA.”
When chocolatiers, Amón and Soriano were searching for a meaningful name for their company’s artisan chocolates, they researched Costa Rican folklore. The god, Sibú who created the country’s lush forests and all it’s creatures, was also responsible for cacao – the food of the gods.
Like a scientist in his flavor laboratory and just a marble slab donated by a friend, Soriano started experimenting with exotic combinations incorporating local fresh fruits and herbs into bean- to- bar and bonbons that would eventually make their chocolate the most sought-after in the tropics. Today there are 10 bar flavors including Chai Spice With Chili Pepper and Sea Salt Coffee-Toffee. 16 bonbon combinations include lime and coriander white chocolate truffles, ginger coconut caramels covered in dark chocolate, passion fruit ganache, lavender and honey truffles.
“Tasting, tasting, tasting is the key to start a business in chocolate because you must hone your palate just like wine,” explains Soriano. And, in those first few years, we gained about 20 pounds each!” he laughs.
As Creative Director, Amón researched and designed beautifully intricate pre-Columbian patterns to decorate Soriano’s creations. “ We feel that everything should tell a story and reflect our history, including our packaging,” he explains. “We care so deeply about the environment and sustainability that we craft our boxes from cacao husks and fibre, usually discarded during the chocolate making process,” Amón explains proudly.”
The Sibú Chocolate Workshop and Garden Café is located in the charming San Isidro de Heredia area surrounded by the lush tropical gardens of Braulio Carrillo National Park. In 2014, a second location was opened in the Sabana Norte neighborhood of San Jose. In case truffles and bars aren’t enough of a temptation, Pastry Chef, Jennifer Kalman, creates enticing desserts with – what else? Chocolate!
Their half-day Chocolate Tours are a huge hit with locals and tourists as is a Chocolate Seder (what a treat for Elijah – hot chocolate instead of wine!) and Amón and Soriano also offer an intensive Master Chocolatier Course during which time participants take dugout canoes to explore cacao co-operatives on the Caribbean coast.
Giving back to the community is a Sibú Chocolate imperative from CATIE a ground-breaking foundation that protects natural habitats and houses genetic banks for cacao to the Corcovado Foundation that is dedicated to the sea turtle protection program.
Global chocoholics can order Sibu Chocolates directly from their website: http://sibuchocolate.com
In North America from Chocosphere.com