Cuban cigars with coffee and chocolate notes, Colombian coffee with a hint of tobacco, a coffee infused Ecuadorian chocolate truffle - Latin America is the melting pot for three of the most alluring and fascinating stimulants around.
Coffee and chocolate are often paired together thanks to the overlap between their growing regions and similarities in their flavor notes. Both coffee and cacao share a huge flavor profile - over 600 aromatic compounds in cacao and more than a thousand in coffee! And the two plants' similarities don't end here.
Chocolate's main ingredient cocoa comes from Theobroma cacao, also known as ‘fruit of the gods’- an oval fruit called a pod which grows directly on the plant's trunk and comes in red, yellow, purple and other mixed colors, with each pod contains 25-50 cocoa beans, surrounded by pulp. Approximately 10 pods are necessary to produce 450 grams of cocoa beans. As a comparison, coffee beans come from red coffee cherries that produce only two beans per cherry.
Cocoa and coffee flourish in the cocoa belt, along or near the Equator in Latin America, the tropics of western Africa, Asia and India. South America's lower Amazon is cacao's original home, yet now it grows best in equatorial Africa. And coffee originally comes from Africa and Arabia (in Ethiopia and Yemen) but now the bean grows best in South America.
Coffee and cacao both stimulate via alkaloids, caffeine for coffee and theobromine for cacao. So both beans contain significant amounts of antioxidants - cacao more than coffee.
Havana tobacco is widely renowned as the flavorful leaf of the the Cuban cigar, so distinctive and unique because it is made entirely from Tabaco Negro Cubano (Cuban black tobacco), a straightforward descendant of the tobacco plants that Columbus reported more than five hundred years ago. These plantations are protected from the sun by a thin cloth to give the leaf a soft and smooth texture, with the lower leaves giving a lighter wrapper and the upper leaves a darker wrapper used for a wide range of Cuban cigar varieties.
Cigars are associated more with coffee and when trying to match cigars with coffee, similarities in taste must be considered. Balance is the key to a good pairing, as you do not want to overpower one flavour with another. Therefore, a light roast coffee should be paired with a milder, sweeter cigar, and a dark roast coffee would match better with a full-bodied, stronger cigar. With such a vast range of coffee and cigars available in Latin America, specifically in Cuba for the latter, the pairing options are limitless. And while you're at it pop a chocolate truffle or two in the equation for good measure.
Since the mid-18th century the majority of the world’s coffee has been produced in Latin America, with Colombia and Brazil leading the pack and Venezuela, Peru and Costa Rica following suit. Both Arabica and Robusta beans are sold throughout Latin America. Brazilian coffee is grown predominantly in the lowlands and known for its nutty, sweet flavour, often with coffee notes. The higher altitude plantations of Colombia produce beans of a slightly higher acidity, sweet with a full body and caramel-like taste. Visits to Colombia's coffee region are worth it for the scenery alone and a coffee plantation visit gives a great overview of the process as well as a chance to sample and select your favourites to bring home.
In Colombia, the most popular coffee for locals is 'tinto', a thick, bitter drink made from beans not good enough to export. This is slowly changing as today’s coffee culture reaches Latin shores and in most large cities there are at least a handful of excellent boutique coffee shops with world-class baristas, serving up the good beans on home soil. Please make sure you only purchase ethically-sourced Faitrade coffee.
Across the globe, chocolate is one of the best loved sweet treats. Interestingly it appears to be one of the few examples of a crop which has been grown almost exclusively for human pleasure, never for necessity. The Aztecs introduced 'xocolātl' to the Spanish in the 16th century but archaeological evidence shows the harvesting and consumption of cocoa goes back as far as several thousand years BC. Whilst the cacao plant originates from Central and South America, its most famous finished chocolate products are mostly associated with Europe. Some of the finest cacao and cocoa come from Ecuador, and on a smaller scale Costa Rica.
We are seeing a chocolate renaissance with cocoa plantations reappearing across both countries, growing the world’s best cacao and following the process through to the end gourmet chocolate product of the finest quality. In Ecuador a couple of our favourites are Pacari and Republica de Cacao, the latter of which has a small chocolate museum and laboratory on-site, offering wonderful chocolate experiences for those who are keen to learn (and sample!) more. Just like coffee, make sure you only purchase ethically-sourced chocolate.
Few would consider a trip to Cuba complete without the purchase of one of their world-renowned handmade cigars, whether you intend to smoke it or not. Famed for their complexity and strength the Cuban cigar is most often the powerhouse in any blind cigar tasting test. Aging like a fine wine, when properly kept in a humidor, Cuban cigars have become something of a collectors’ item. Partagás, Cohiba, Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta are the brands to look out for.
Counterfeits do exist in Cuba so a Cohiba Esplendido which only sets you back a few bucks is undoubtedly not a true Cohiba Esplendido. Even if you don’t smoke, a trip to the rolling countryside around Viñales, where the ox-tilled tobacco fields lie is worth it for the stunning landscape and a fascinating glimpse into rural life in Cuba. A visit to a cigar factory is recommended to see the true art that goes into rolling puros, the favourite cigars of connoisseurs and celebrities worldwide.
Buy only Fairtrade products
There are over 1.5 million farmers and workers spread across more than 70 countries participating in Fairtrade and there are thousands of Fairtrade products from coffee, cocoa, tobacco and tea to flowers, wool and even silver and gold. We highly encourage that we all support these products. It is not only about fair prices for everyone but also about decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring businesses to pay sustainable prices which must never fall lower than the market price, this helps alleviate any injustices from conventional trade which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. This enables families and villages to improve the quality of their lives. Our simple shopping choices can help farmers and other producers control their future and lead more comfortable and dignified lives everyone deserves.