The New Gastronome
The Story of Claudio Corallo
by Francesca Zanardi
by Francesca Zanardi
Last summer, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Claudio Corallo in Florence. He was in his native town because the pandemic had forced him to leave Africa after 40 years. One of the finest producers of cocoa and chocolate on Earth and a passionate agronomist, he revealed his secret to me: arcane. The process of arcane is a religious respect for the soil and an excellent agroforestry management method that becomes palpable in the flavour of his chocolate.
The pandemic has overwritten many of our plans. In this case, however, it allowed me to interview a man I otherwise might never have met. An Italian agronomist, living and working in Africa since the 70s and connected to some of the best chocolate in the world: Claudio Corallo.
Claudio was forced to return to Florence, his native town, leaving his beloved São Tomé and Príncipe with regrets as the pandemic worsened. I had already known his fabulous chocolate, but when I saw he was staying a mere 15 minutes away from my house in Florence, I hazardously sent him an Instagram message. Luckily, he was kind enough to agree to a meeting and an interview. I was particularly interested in his work in São Tomé and Príncipe and fascinated by his decision to move his life to Africa in the 70s. He recalls that the beginning wasn’t easy. He was working as a consultant agronomist for coffee production in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and from his tales of rural Africa, the deepest pluvial forest and the navigation on the Congo River, I imagined a scenario in the style of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.
When Claudio talked about his journey and work, I immediately perceived his genuine passion for nature and its cycles. Before becoming an entrepreneur, he worked as an agronomist and helped to improve the coffee production in Zaire. This job was often dominated by wasteful operations like rough harvesting techniques that caused coffee cherries to lie on the ground and rot. Observing the situation, Claudio solved the problem by helping the harvesters improve their techniques and care for the plants rather than resorting to the simple – but incorrect! – practice of blindly fertilising the soil. Later he bought some coffee plantations of his own and began to master the process of production, from plant to cup. He started to accept consulting jobs in Africa and South America and moved to São Tomé and Príncipe in the early 90s when the Congo war began. Now in the tropical paradise of Gabon and Guinea, just on the Equator line, he discovered and restored cocoa cultivation, initially brought by the Portuguese merchants coming back from Brazil.
“The ones best suited to this environment had come out on top, and he had simply to plant some botanicals to shade and protect the new seedlings, in accordance with the environment and the endemic native species.”
Discovered in the 15th century, these islands were used as trade harbours to store and commerce goods and slaves. Yet, during their many voyages, the Portuguese also noticed that the climatic and environmental conditions were similar to those of native cocoa lands and, in the 19th century, began a cultivation in the archipelago. These cocoa plantations were the first to be documented outside the Americas. The Portuguese king Dom João VI ordered the exportation of the renowned fruit to preserve at least some income considering the imminent declaration of independence of his biggest colony, Brazil. The king’s gamble paid off, as São Tomé and Príncipe became the leading cocoa producer at the beginning of the 20th century. Claudio was fascinated by this story and began his personal quest surrounding the ancestral cocoa.
When he arrived on the island of Príncipe – on the Terreiro Velho, to be precise – he found an abandoned plantation submerged by the forest. Most of the precious plants were lost, and the ecosystem had been damaged by the indiscriminate cutting of the larger trees that once protected the plantation with the shadows they provided. With great effort, Claudio began to clean up the forest floor where some cocoa seedlings were sprouting thanks to the greedy monkeys. The primates had eaten the pulp of the cocoa fruit, chewing it and spitting the seeds on the forest floor, ultimately helping them survive and selecting the kind of cocoa varieties for Claudio. The ones best suited to this environment had come out on top, and he had simply to plant some botanicals to shade and protect the new seedlings, in accordance with the environment and the endemic native species. Over the years, the plantation was restored and superseded his previous form due to Claudio’s new farming methods. He aimed to restore the balance between the cultivation and the nature where it is located. This is where he first mentioned his secret: arcane.
We had a fascinating chat about the equilibrium between natural environments and the land manipulated by men. In the beginning, humans were able to maintain the natural balance of the system, but after the Second World War, we have shifted our priority towards massive and ‘rational’ production. With the entry of capitalism and the supply chain system in agricultural productions, we have finalised the separation from nature by treating its holistic system as an aseptic group of things.
Claudio told me about the famous soil microbiologists Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, their impactful work on soil restoration and their attempt to save the farmers from technological mistakes. The gist of the matter is that, nowadays, most farmers don’t know their own land and soil; they simply treat it following the directions of agribusinesses, resulting in the destruction of the ecosystem, the loss of biodiversity, the erosion of the soil, water pollution and, ever more frequently, devastating meteorological events. Therefore, thinking that the climate crisis is not our fault is a blind and masochistic behaviour. Agriculture is one of the most polluting human activities, as it is often done incorrectly. We are not following the path that nature gave us, thus endangering ourselves and not generating economic benefits. All of this is caused by farmers using more and more products instead of taking care of their land and taking advantage of the free and bountiful gifts nature has to offer. At this point, if you think that this is a freaky flower-power article, I invite you to read and listen to the Bourguignon couple to understand their solid theories better. I will take this opportunity to explain the basics a little bit.
The core principle is that knowing your soil will allow you to treat it right. Standard ploughing practices don’t count as ‘treating it right’. In fact, the profound alterations of the natural soil layers are the worst thing you could do to your beloved fields. It’s like being forced to walk upside-down every day or put underwater and told to breathe. It’s not simply inconvenient; it is entirely impossible.
Furthermore, we know very little about the creatures that inhabit the soil and don’t know how to care for them properly. While you have probably been taught about earthworms in primary school, did you know that some can reach up to one meter in length in the Italian Alps and French Pyrenees? Earthworms can mix the two main components of the soil, humus and clay, creating a perfect environment for the small roots of our plants. But there are many more creatures who tirelessly work to create an opportunity for plants to absorb the trace elements they need to give fruits and produce lovely aromatic compounds.
Now, with a new wave of artisanal producers, change is slowly taking place. The value of terroir has started to become recognised, but terroir and its sensorial merits on our food still depend on the health of the soil – no matter if that soil is used to grow grain, vines or cocoa plants.
Another example I was talking about with Claudio was the unnecessary input used in conventional agriculture: you don’t need to add fertiliser or chemical compounds because they are all already present in the soil – if the soil is living and fertile, that is. If we put nitrogen, it’s different from leaving the soil’s ecosystem to fertilise on its own. We are adding a synthesis element that will mineralise the organic matter, consuming it and exhausting it. The result? The first crop will be unbelievable, so the farmer will continue to add nitrogen to keep the harvest consistent. This practice, however, will only fill the pockets of the agro-industry as the farmer gets more and more dependent on the input. We are all familiar with the unfortunate cases of farmers – in developing countries and in places like France – who have resorted to the extreme act of suicide because they had ruined their lands and were too heavily in debt to go on.
To conclude, there are different soil degradation stages: first comes the loss of biodiversity and the extinction of the soil fauna. Then there is the chemical degradation, which brings us to the loss of structure and the erosion of centimetres of ground. The resulting soil is dead: a heap of clay without structure that goes into the rivers, augmenting the corrosive power of water and its capacity to create damages. The bad management of the soil is oftentimes the primary cause of devastating floods and extreme droughts alike. Everything is related, and Claudio agrees that we need more comprehension and respect for nature.
“Claudio states that 60% of the work that leads to delicious chocolate is done before roasting the beans. Indeed, the work in the field and the harvesting period are both key to the special result that he is looking for. “
If you use respectful practices, as Claudio does for his production of cocoa and coffee in São Tomé and Príncipe, you will end up with a better product from the environmental point of view and a sensorial one. Even Claudio himself was astonished by the difference in the taste of his cocoa beans when he first tried them. Immediately, the memories of extreme bitter chocolates faded into the background. He even confessed to me that it was due to this unpleasantly bitter taste that he hadn’t been initially in love with chocolate.
To better understand the process he uses, he gave me a panoramic view of his work growing cocoa trees, processing them and, finally, transforming them into chocolate bars. Claudio states that 60% of the work that leads to delicious chocolate is done before roasting the beans. Indeed, the work in the field and the harvesting period are both key to the special result that he is looking for.
I was happy to taste some of the toasted cocoa beans that Claudio showed me. After teaching me to discard the peel and the germ, which is vitreous and bitter, I was amazed by the beauty of this seed, its deep brown colour and all the little cracks on it. The complexity of its taste blew me away: the aroma was primarily related to the roasting process, but with the delicate nuance of malted cereals. The mouthfeel, on the other hand, was surprisingly elegant. It tasted herbaceous, of hay and dried flowers, even dirt. Vivid and rich in humus, like only a pluvial forest floor can be. After I enjoyed the beautiful harmony of Claudio’s 100% dark chocolate and its powerful taste, I found the same earthy and vegetal nuances in the beans. Claudio also wanted to honour the entire cocoa fruit by distilling the sweet pulp that covers the seeds to create a unique liquor. Obviously, I had to try it and, despite the high alcohol content, it was exquisite and refreshing.
As a gastronome (and a gardener myself), the day spent with Claudio left me grateful for the great-tasting and, above all, for the opportunity to have our stimulating conversation that brought me to consider not only the philosophical aspect of agriculture-related topics but even the renewed critical approach in my gardening practices. I’m ready to investigate and help my soil, bearing in mind the concept of arcane!
Cover photo @renardsgourmets
The opinions expressed in the articles of this magazine do not necessarily represent the views of
The New Gastronome and The University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo.