To arrive at Ilha do Combú, I paid $7 Reais (about US$1,20), cruised down the river on a small ferry venturing through the muddy brown rivers of the Amazon to get to Dona Nena Chocolates from the Amazon. I’m hot and sweaty but immensely happy to be here. My desire to come to this area has been on my list for a long time. An inner sense of peace invaded my soul as the sea winds blew my hair on my way to visit Dona Nena.
Leave it up to me to fall in love with this place. Arriving here is not so easy, and I can hear in my mind the voice of my mother saying things like: “Where the heck in the world is you? Why go to this unsafe, unknown place? What for?”
The Brazilians I know are a lot more familiar with Disney in Florida than Ilha do Combú, in Belém do Pará. And yet, a visit here with Dona Nena is more exciting than I can possibly describe.
She greeted me warmly and started showing me around. First, she shows me pupunha, the fruit of the palm tree. She takes me to the backyard, where cocoa, cupuaçú, pupunha, and açaí grow abundantly. Then we start talking about her chocolates. She takes me to the drying station, a sunporch hotter than a sauna, where she comes several times a day to mix and spread the cocoa beans as they dry on the sun.
Her tiny business is expanding and proudly shows me the new foundation for the future kitchen. It is hard to grasp the meaning of growing a company when something is so simple, primary, and beautiful.
Dona Nena was born in Piriquitaquara, and the cacao has always been a part of her family. She grew up watching her mom make artisanal chocolate. Bringing money has always been at the top of her mind, as money did not grow as abundantly as cocoa or any other fruit in the jungle for that matter.
After working several different jobs to survive, Dona Nena decided to go back to making chocolate, the only way she knew, as her mom taught her back in the Amazon when she was a kid.
The owner of Saldosa Maloca, Dona Prazeres Quaresma dos Santos, believed in her potential, despite the minimal production. At first, she was selling chocolate at local farmer’s markets. One day, another restaurant located at Ilha do Combú invited Dona Nena to sell her chocolate at the restaurant.
Prazeres (that’s her name) whispered to a well-known chef in the area, Thiago Castanho, a young and handsome Brazilian chef, owner of the restaurant Remanso do Bosque. He repeated the invitation, giving Dona Nena another opportunity to sell chocolates at his famed restaurant. Not only did her chocolate start trading very well, but slowly Thiago helped spread the word of Dona Nena’s talent to other chefs in the region. And then, to the rest of Brazil.
Facing a more significant demand for her products, Dona Nena Chocolates from the Amazon decided to make one of the best investments of all: education. She enrolled in a chocolate course in Rio Grande do Sul (a state in the south of Brazil). For one full year, she’d spend one week every month at Castelli, a chocolate factory in the region.
She created the delicious Brigadeiro da Floresta, enrobed in cocoa nibs and using her own “forest chocolate” in the recipe, hence the name.
Dona Nena Chocolates from the Amazon completed the construction of an auditorium attached to her Casa do Chocolate da Ilha do Combú to give lectures and educate people on the craft of chocolate making. She receives tourists from all over Brazil and all over the world.
If you’d like to know more about Dona Nena visit her Instagram @FilhadoCombu.
If you like this story, you will love my recipe for Chocolate Cupuaçú Cake, published on this website.
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