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While many believe that power should be imposed by fear, we, women, get together, harvest the land, talk among us and laugh.
What do the Femmes de Virunga and female chefs have in common?
Before sunlight Cristina García Suárez wakes up and, after a small breakfast, drives her car to the restaurant in the foothills of the Amboto mountain in the Basque region of Spain. The pandemic brought the up-and-coming young chef back to her hometown, Durango, and to a remote mountain restaurant called Mendi Goicoa, which in Euskera means “the mountain from above”. Like so many mountain peaks, Amboto is charged with myths and traditions.
Testing the limits of traditions is often what inspires Cristina, as when is bringing together sweet and salty ingredients in her foods. Cristina has worked under the guidance of some of the most prestigious chefs in Spain and learned to trust her own judgement and to own her talent.
When Cristina works in her stylish restaurant kitchen, she can look out through the wide window screens onto the Amboto. They say the Goddess Mari lives up there in a cave. Mari represents the pre-Christian earth mother. She helps farmers predict the weather and the outcome of the harvests. Mari is powerful, independent and beautiful. She is served by a court of witches and female spirit guides. When they laugh they do so from their core, showing their teeth, unafraid and strong.
When clouds cover the Amboto mountain, Mari has come out of her cave—or so goes the myth. Those are the most harmonious days in Cristina’s kitchen. Among the guests at Mendi Goicoa a precious feeling of peace sets in.
It is the same feeling of peace that moves Léontine Kavira as she looks up from her tiny plot of cacao trees onto Rwenzori, the white mountains of the moon in Eastern Congo DR. Mountains convey their peace to people in ways that make one think of the gods.
Not long ago, there had been godforsaken days in Leontine’s life. When soldiers marauded the villages and took all the women they could lay their hands on. Famine was only a bad harvest away and not every child grew to adolescence.
At the age of thirty-two, Leontine is in her middle-age according to Congolese life expectancies. But even though her bones are starting to ache on the long daily walks to the fields for water and for wood, life has become more tranquil and productive in Mundubiena and the other villages bordering on Africa’s oldest national park, the Virunga.
The chocolate that the women from the Virunga Project make is one of the best in the world and the Femmes commitment to continuous learning about cocoa production is giving them not only the opportunity to feed their children well, but to give them an education and, also, to believe in themselves.
For ten years now, the international chocolate company Original Beans and their local “Bean Team” have been promoting a new cash crop in the region. Cacao, it turns out, grows really well in this climate and in the lava soils of Virunga. Over the years, more and more women have learned cacao cultivation and passed it on to other women. The Bean Team calls them the Femmes de Virunga in the official French language of the land.
For a Femmes de Virunga such as Leontine, cacao has translated into an astonishing opportunity for personal development. The tree and its promotion by Original Beans have earned her money and made her less dependent on her husband. She was taught to read and write and has improved her community leadership skills during the Original Beans sponsored education programmes. Leontine is now ready to purchase another plot of land to grow cacao so that two of her children can continue to study after secondary school.
In this part of the world, women harvest the cacao fruit, then wrap the seeds in palm leaves and gently turn them for seven days, so as to allow excess pulp to drain and promote natural fermentation. After the beans are dried, they are packed and transported more than a thousand kilometers away on the most unlikely roads of Africa to the harbour of Mombasa in Kenya.
Once in Europe, the Virunga cacao makes its way up to the mountains again, into serene Switzerland, where they are manufactured into an award-winning Original Beans chocolate, named Femmes of Virunga in honour of the growers.
"Cristina believes the feeling of peaceful harmony will encourage people to leave their preconceptions behind and that testing the limits of gastronomy is possible through her cooking. "
It’s the Femmes of Virunga chocolate that inspired chef Cristina Suárez to create one of her favourite dishes. From sweet to sour to salty, it pays homage to the women who work the fields and nurture their families wherever they are, in the Basque country or in Virunga Park. Made with crispy pumpkin leaves and sweet potato, creamy white truffle butter, toasted milk and caramel, Cristina’s dish evokes the mountains covered in their coloured cloak. Red to ochre, yellow to brown: these are colours Cristina remembers from her childhood, which ended on the day she declared: “I will be a cook.”
For the women in the fields, like Leontine, life mostly continues day in and day out, year in and year out. They wake up before dawn to serve their husbands and kids, then work the fields and visit the markets. They cultivate nature in intimate awareness of cycles and interrelations, but also with the endurance of their physical strength. Traditions often limit their entitlement to land, money and status. Girls are educated poorly and the first to drop out of school. Sexual intimidation is a problem everywhere.
But women have always come together, protected each other and resisted together. Today, their solidarity spans the world. As Cristina Suárez and Leontine Kavira connect in an all female chocolate creation, they join their lives, work and insights. Looking up to their peaceful mountains, can they hear laughter? Mari is laughing. Women have always laughed - not at men, but for each other and for their own power, courage and self determination. We laugh with them as we celebrate Women’s Day with an extraordinary chocolate by the strong Femmes de Virunga.
IAMAWOMAN GIFT SET
Support the Femmes de Virunga by enjoying the award-winning Virunga chocolate bars as a gift set: the Femmes de Virunga + Virunga chocolate bar, and the Femmes de Virunga chocolate buttons.