River-Sea's Origin Story
And Coco the Sloth
Plant geneticists say cacao trees originated in the Amazon Basin, the same place where River-Sea's story starts, in the land where Mariano was born and raised.
Belem, Brazil is now a giant metropolis of high rises and various multi-level shopping malls. Over 2 million people live in and around this rain-forest city doing things that city people do, but doing them right next to the Amazon River delta, a giant force of flow and current that screams by with chocolate colored water and swell the size of ocean waves. River islands sit off the coast and every morning canoes carry fruits and veggies grown in these islands to the large outdoor market in old town. The European settlers used this port as a hub during colonization. The weathered edifices look as if they haven't been painted since the 1600's but the Portuguese tiles and steel work remaining stoke the imagination with visions of a once elegant and prosperous town.
Many modern residents use Portuguese style architecture and tiles, as well as native artwork in their homes. The people are proud of their Brazilian heritage, which for almost everyone means a combination of jungle native, European, African, and maybe even some Japanese, Arab, and every other immigrant population. The culinary traditions might be the most impressive element of the region. It's like Italy, the way that fresh regional cuisine brings families together for holidays, birthdays, and weekend gatherings with so many delicious local dishes.
Oddly, although chocolate trees originated from this area, chocolate is not considered a traditional regional food. Instead of making stuff with the beans/seeds, the fruit pulp is the main regional cacao ingredient. It's utilized in desserts and made into juice commonly found at all restaurants and at home for enjoyment. In the interior farming towns, it is possible to find some communities making chocolate, but they take it as a drink: fermenting, drying, roasting and grinding the cacao seeds. Then adding milk and frothy egg whites to make a nutritious warm chocolate milk. This method of preparation is similar to the Aztec and Mayan chocolate the Spanish first encountered, and although it can be considered a staple food in the tribes that use it, it is a dying practice due to the younger generation's disinterest.
But Krissee and Mariano, founders of River-Sea, didn't know this, or anything about chocolate's origins, before traveling down to Brazil summer of 2017.
Mariano grew up in Belem but moved to Washington, DC in 2005. He and Krissee started a family and by 2017 had 3 kids ages 10-2 years old. In May 2017 they both found the time to take the kids to Brazil for a summer sabbatical and spend quality time with family that they had not seen in over 5 years.
While down there, they were invited for a typical Brazilian weekend bar-b-que (churrasco) at Mariano's cousin Marcela's house. The house sat outside of the city limits in a gated community of custom homes with pools, tropical trees, playgrounds - with toucans hopping around, and of-course a soccer field. Marcela's backyard had a giant cacao tree, so big they actually built the fence through it instead of cutting it down or trying to go around it. She commented that the fruits were ripe and the kids started climbing to pick them despite the worried grandparents yelling at the kids (and parents of the kids) to make them get down.
Cacao pods are shaped like footballs and come in shades ranging from yellow, orange, red, and purple. When one is ripe you can crack it against the tree root, like cracking an egg on the side of a bowl. The kids climbed and picked three bright yellow pods each. Mariano even had to give in to native jungle boy impulses and climbed up there to harvest a couple too.
This tree was the beginning of the quest to make chocolate. They took knowledge from interior communities, local chocolate makers, and supplemented with internet research to turn those beans into chocolate with very rudimentary tools (think mortar and pestle, and a broken blender). But, it worked.
They heard about a family friend's farm in the fertile delta and traveled there to see about opportunities to purchase cacao. In Brazil, a phone call is never good enough to make a deal, you need a face-to-face encounter to get any type of information. The drive took hours through traffic, over bridges, potholes, dirt roads, past a Japanese settlement community, and to the farm with papaya, black pepper, cacao, and cumin growing. While touring the farm they learned it had been robbed twice at gun point, this greatly traumatized the owners, and shows the challenges of being successful in a country with corruption and violence.
They bought 10 kilos of cacao beans and stopped for lunch at the equivalent of a trucker roadside restaurant - except in the jungle with monkey noises, and that served deep purple bowls of açaí with fried fish and tapioca. On the way back they almost hit a sloth crossing the road. It was rush hour and vehicles drive 120km/hour or crazy fast down paved roads. They stopped to help him make it safely to the other side. It is not uncommon for these guys to get run over, people say the result of diminishing habitat due to logging and the slash and burn agriculture. The sloth was so happy about it that he asked for a selfie.
These types of social and environmental distresses coat the otherwise beautiful culture Brazil has become. But craft chocolate is an eco-friendly force for social change that can improve the lives of people in the region while turning them away from the need to destroy forest. Stories of bean-to-bar and tree-to-bar social and environmental impact victories in regions like Peru, Tanzania, Grenada, and Vietnam demonstrate the power of empowerment through chocolate. Read more about River-Sea's sustainability and social impact practices here.
Once returning to The States, and with the encouragement of the kids, friends, and family; Krissee and Mariano started making bean-to-bar craft chocolate in a small, shared kitchen in Sterling, VA. Their neighbors call Mariano "Willy Wonka" and their kitchen is therefore named the Chocolate Factory. Coco the Sloth became the official mascot.
Mariano Specialty: Import and Export Logistics and Finance, Fermentation and Farm Outreach
Krissee Specialty: Bean to Bar Chocolate Making, Graduate of Ecole Chocolat - Professional School of Chocolate Arts
We named our chocolates "River-Sea" because most of the world's cacao
grows in coastal jungle areas influenced by the daily flow of the tide.
The rhythm of a producer's life synchronizes with the waves and moon.
Beauty and reverence for these celestial reverberations,
and the dance with nature that happens as beans voyage by river or sea, inspire our products.
What People Write About Us
Chocolate Critic and Chocolate Blogger reviews of our chocolate:
C-Spot Review score 9.01 River-Sea, river-do...Understanding -- whether intellectually &/or intuitively &/or instagrammarly -- this barsmith does produce. 7/16/2019
C-Spot Review score 8.69 : Exemplar: River-Sea Chocolates. Off the beaten path yet well on their way. 1/29/2019
TimeCupSoul: River-Sea Chocolates: Local Vendor Provides Delicious Chocolate Escape 7/5/2019
Time To Eat Chocolate: River-Sea Chocolates 8/19/2018
Articles/Videos about our business:
Voice of America Korea - The American Tale 9/18/2021
Northern Virginia Magazine - Hidden Foodie Gems April 2021
Northern Virginia Magazine - Alice's Latest Obsession: River-Sea Chocolates 01/12/2021
Feel Good Fridays - River-Sea Chocolate Factory 11/27/2020
ABC 7 - ECHO helps adults with disabilities continue working during pandemic 9/3/2020
Northern Virginia Magazine - If you're going to buy sweets for Valentine's Day, try Chantilly's River-Sea Chocolates 2/13/2019
Adventure Moms DC - Swimming in Chocolate at River-Sea Chocolate Factory 3/4/2019
Jennifer the Beholder - Guest Krissee D'Aguiar River-Sea Chocolates 7/20/2018
Articles about our Sustainable shipping project:
Tres Hombres - Cargo Under Sail Video 4/23/2019
El Informador: Santa Marta is the Pioneer in Sustainable Export (in Spanish) "In the facilities of the Port of Santa Marta, the Dutch-flagged sailboat Tres Hombres yesterday loaded 14 ton of cocoa and six of coffee harvested in the Sierra Nevada, products destined for the United States and Europe. With the operation, the capital of Magdalena is consolidated as the first city in the country that exports in a friendly way with the environment, at least during the modern era." 3/13/2019
Nice article on the scientific platform N+1: Colombia will export cacao and coffee using a CO2-free ship. (in Spanish) 3/4/2019
Live the chocolate life