During the late 19th and much of the 20th century, a small patch of paradise in southern Bahia, a state in Northeast Brazil, was the Number One producer of cocoa in the world. It was also the realm of Brazil’s cocoa barons.
Cacao trees were native to the Brazilian Amazon. But in the 1700s, Brazilian colonists decided to see if cacao would take to the fertile soil of the coastal region surrounding the tiny town of Ilhéus. Cacao thrives in the shade, and the native Atlantic forest – a rainforest more ancient than the Amazon – provided a natural canopy that allowed trees to reach heights of 40 feet.
In the late 1800s, spurred on by industrialization, the world’s cocoa market exploded. Adventurers from Brazil and around the world sailed, rode and even walked to Bahia’s “Cocoa Coast.” Many dreamed of making vast fortunes by planting this cash crop. For decades, precious cocoa was known as “black gold.” Planters who grew rich from its trade became known as “cocoa barons.”
Cocoa Barons’ Rise and Demise
In keeping with their title, the “barons” built grand plantation estates furnished with the finest European trappings. They drove to Ilhéus in gleaming American automobiles and checked into grand hotels. They wiled away days at luxurious beach houses with names such as Praia dos Milionários (Millionnaire Beach). At night, they gambled away fortunes while drinking Champagne and smoking cigars lit with 500,000 real bills.
On Sundays, lavishly attired cocoa baronesses went to mass at the new and opulent São Sebastião Cathedral. Meanwhile, their husbands took refuge in the nearby Bar Vesúvio. From the bar, a secret passage led to the Bataclan. In this swank “cabaret,” barons could indulge in more earthly pursuits with European call girls. The chime of church bells warned them that services were ending. That masses lasted three hours was due to an agreement between the barons and priests. Those who gave extra long sermons were handsomely rewarded.
Bahia’s cocoa barons lived through most of the 20th century’s economic booms and busts. However, they didn’t survive the ominously named witch’s broom. This deadly disease began attacking cacao trees in the 1980s. By the late 1990s, cocoa production in Bahia had fallen by over 50 percent. Many plantations went bankrupt. According to a Swiss-Brazilian cocoa matriarch, instead of Paris shopping sprees, many cocoa barons now “stayed home, eating bananas.”
A New Sustainable Beginning
In recent years, the Cocoa Coast has sprouted back to life. A new generation is investing in sustainable cultivation and the production of high-quality, artisanal chocolate – not unlike those made by Delysia Chocolatier. We also use the finest, ethically sourced cocoa from around the world to create delicious handmade chocolates. Our chocolate barks, truffles and molded chocolates are sure to satisfy the appetites of the most demanding cocoa baron.