The Alchemy of Coffee and Cacao
THERE IS NOTHING that brings people together quite like warm, indulgent chocolate. The magical allure of this confection is at the heart of children’s adventure stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and romantic films like Chocolat. Similarly, coffee has arguably taken on a significance greater than any other drink. As necessary as it is powerful, coffee is consumed voraciously, and gratefully, all over the world.
Beautiful and biodiverse, Peru is among the world’s largest producers of both coffee and cacao. An appropriately mythical land for these magical beans, Peru is the fifth largest international exporter of Arabica coffee beans in the world. As for cacao, the plant originated in the rainforests at the mouth of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers and subsequently moved northeast. Peru now grows seven out of the ten globally recognised cocoa families.
It stands to reason, then, that you’ll drink an astonishingly good cup of coffee in the ancient Peruvian city of Cusco. Rich, full-bodied and beautifully prepared, your coffee will taste especially good with a handmade artisanal chocolate. What’s surprising, though, is that coffee and chocolate were not traditionally consumed or prepared here.
The rich, tantalizing flavours we’ve come to love in Cusco are a result of local resources meeting contemporary international trends. European and Northern American influence has changed the way that coffee is prepared and served here. While the Aztecs and Mayans did incorporate cacao into their rituals and culture as a drink and as currency, Peru’s Inca people didn’t use cacao at all. This is partly because Cusco city is so high in the Andes, and cacao requires a lower altitude. The nearest place it can successfully grow is in the jungle of Quillabamba, around 100km away.
Just as the plants need exactly the right conditions to flourish, Peru’s popularity as a cultural hub in the wider world has created ideal conditions for cacao and coffee to be served in their most delicious forms. Mythical Cusco works its magic once again.
To see cacao being transformed into chocolate, head to the city’s ChocoMuseo workshop and museum. It’s an essential pitstop for chocolate lovers of every nationality. Situated on the beautiful Plaza Regocijo, it’s a block away from the iconic main square and ten minutes’ walk from Monasterio, A Belmond Hotel and Palacio Nazarenas, A Belmond Hotel. As soon as you enter this colonial house, you’re hit with the delicious smell. Inside, there’s a nature room where visitors can learn about the cacao harvest and fermentation process. You can see the beans being dried and roasted, and then grind the beans yourself using a pestle and mortar to make the classic cacao drink.
To make good solid chocolate, however, refining the beans requires a very particular and special machine: the European Mélangeur. It’sthe reason the Swiss have a reputation for making such good chocolate. At ChocoMuseo workshops, visitors can pour their own chocolates and add local flavours such as Maras salt. This unique salt comes from the Maras salt flats in the Sacred Valley, where you’ll find sparkling evaporation ponds which date back to pre-Inca times. For extra zing in your chocolate, add Maca—an ancient Inca root which has a reputation for being an aphrodisiac.
Where then, does one find the best coffee in Cusco? Head to the scenic Barrio San Blas artists’ district, a short stroll uphill from the main square and your hotel. Whitewashed walls and stone houses line the winding cobbled streets in this historic quarter. There are art workshops everywhere, a glorious mix of ancient crafts with contemporary studio work. Artists have come here from all over the world to live and work. Accordingly, the international and Cuscanian baristas at excellent cafes like Café Loco and The Meeting Place combine their skills to make the perfect cup of coffee.
There couldn’t be a more idyllic place than this to stir your coffee and inhale that fabulous aroma. It’s the product of organic, home-grown beans, treated with great care and combined with internationally-honed brewing techniques. Sitting at the top of the world under vast blue skies, all you need to do is sit back, drink deep, and enjoy the magnificent view.