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Volume 18, Number 2
  March 25, 2012

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lifestyle special

Also in this section:
Morning transportation nightmare
National Men's Baseball Tournament Schedule
The 1925 Dule Revolution
The PANAM Network's school vacation workshops in Colon
Enter the Dragon: Jeremy Lin
The court in Cartagena that Panama's religious minorities feared
Pollo de palo: wildlife around the house, or in a pinch, dinner
Kermit Nourse's photos of Carnival in Panama City
Scenes from Carnival around Panama
Promoting safer sex at Carnival in Chitre
Jumbo Man --- the government's symbol --- was an onstage pervert at Carnival
Scenes from this year's Antillean Fair
Panama in the 2014 Winter Olympics?
Renewing a tourist visa in Panama

A lot of articles from other publications and general commentary by various people about different aspects of life in Panama --- and freewheeling discussions about them --- can be found on our constantly updated Facebook page


Passionfruit bonbons. Photo by Darrin DuFord

A chocolate store offers tropical-influenced bonbons in Panama City

Eat them before they melt

by Darrin DuFord

Standing at the glass display counter of Chocolateria y Bomboneria Sebastian, I learned a few unexpected lessons. First: my country, the United States, is cold. And second: we cold-country people have most of the world's chocolate-processing machinery.

José and Ana María De León, the husband-and-wife team that opened their shop on Calle 53 just off Via Argentina two years ago, were not casting us gringos as being heartless. Rather, the other meaning of cold: they affectionately view us as teeth chatterers. The Panamanian couple refers to countries such as the United States, Argentina, and France as paises frios, despite our seasonal heat waves and our temperate zone classifications, because we don't enjoy Panama's year-round tropical climate.

And it is that climate that has influenced many of the couple's bonbon flavors. "The tropical flavors set us apart from others," said Mr. De León as he pointed to his assortment of confections in a display case containing plates of bonbons filled with tangy-sweet reductions of pineapple, passion fruit, mango, and orange. Bonbons of coconut, coffee, and peanut complement the fruit fillings.

Not that there are many chocolate confectioners in Panama City to begin with (I have only found two others), making their offerings a special treat in a city with no shortage of the usual desserts of flan and dulce de leche. To learn the trade, the couple had to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina four years ago, where they took a class on making chocolates.

When they returned to Panama, they endeavored to utilize local Panamanian ingredients for many of their sweets. Their efforts could be considered a Panamanian version of the "eat local" movement. But for the moment, they still have to import the most important ingredient, chocolate. This reality, at first glance, seems painfully ironic, since the province of Bocas del Toro grows some of the best cacao in Central America. While traveling in Bocas del Toro, I have had cups of hot chocolate freshly made from the naturally spicy and intense cacao of the province, as well as bars of chocolate crafted in Bocas Town, although the latter did not have the smooth, creamy texture normally associated with European and American-style chocolate. This is because plants containing the industrial machinery required to process cacao beans into chocolate do not exist in Panama. According to Mr. De León, such plants are located in countries such as the United States, France, and Switzerland. The cold countries. And that is why Chocolateria y Bomboneria Sebastian ships in its chocolate from Chicago.

What would it cost to build a chocolate processing plant in Panama? He answered that a facility capable of performing all steps required to make chocolate on an assembly line --- everything from grinding to mixing to separating the cocoa butter from the solids under tremendous pressure (the cocoa butter is what makes chocolate creamy and smooth) --- would set you back about five million dollars. To satisfy my curiosity concerning the belabored, multinational route to obtain chocolate, Mr. De León smiled and asked me, "Do you have five million dollars?"

The De Leóns could not pony up that kind of cash either, but to start their business, they still needed to take on $100,000 in debt to pay for equipment and fixtures. Mr. De León flattened his hand and placed it above his head to show me what that debt felt like. Since then, he has blended his past experience as an economist with the couple's passion for chocolate, and the store has now become profitable.

"Test, please!" said Mrs. De León, who had appeared with a plastic spoon of a rum-raisin truffle mixture, one of her latest creations, using Panamanian rum, of course. It was so dark and rich that I considered inquiring about a quality assurance position at the store. But the De León's two children have already filled the store's expanding employment needs, along with two other helpers who work during busy times.

In addition to tropical flavors, the couple has also created a few new offerings, like their lightly crisp cereal bonbon. Then again, cooking with cereal is not so unusual in a country like Panama that makes chichas out of ground-up corn flakes.

Looking toward the future, the couple is researching the possibility of opening a store in one of Panama City's malls, as well as in Tocumen Airport (let us hope the latter materializes to save Tocumen's departures terminal from its bleak, culturally-sterile procession of stores hawking generic perfume, booze, and mp3 players). They also are considering opening a store in Boquete. "There are many Gringos in Boquete," said Mr. De León. "Gringos like chocolate."

While he may be right (especially with this Gringo), I will guess that, at fifty cents per piece --- around the street price for a cup of chicha --- the bonbons of Chocolateria y Bomboneria Sebastian are just as popular with Panamanians. That's fine by me; since we Americans are already hogging many of the chocolate processing plants, I feel we should share the enjoyment of bonbons with one of the countries that grows some of the cacao needed for our chocolate.



Chocolateria y Bomboneria Sebastian
Calle 53 just south of Via Argentina
223-9689
http://chocosebastian.com/

Darrin DuFord's book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car won the silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. His articles have appeared in USA Today, Perceptive Travel, Transitions Abroad, and World Hum. Read his latest ruminations on travel and food on his blog, http://www.OmnivorousTraveler.wordpress.com.






   
 

Also in this section:
Morning transportation nightmare
National Men's Baseball Tournament Schedule
The 1925 Dule Revolution
The PANAM Network's school vacation workshops in Colon
Enter the Dragon: Jeremy Lin
The court in Cartagena that Panama's religious minorities feared
Pollo de palo: wildlife around the house, or in a pinch, dinner
Kermit Nourse's photos of Carnival in Panama City
Scenes from Carnival around Panama
Promoting safer sex at Carnival in Chitre
Jumbo Man --- the government's symbol --- was an onstage pervert at Carnival
Scenes from this year's Antillean Fair
Panama in the 2014 Winter Olympics?
Renewing a tourist visa in Panama



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