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No milk, sugar: Venezuelans lose prized ice cream to crisis

AFP logoAFP 9/13/2017

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The Coromoto ice cream parlor had it all — chocolate and vanilla for sure, though also garlic, avocado and even octopus sorbets. But the things you can't find in Venezuela anymore, like milk and sugar, means the landmark has had to close for good.

When Manuel Da Silva first opened its welcoming yellow doors in 1981, the Heladeria Coromoto offered its clients the tried and trusted — vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and coconut flavors.

Until one day, Manuel tried out an avocado sorbet on his customers. "It was a success!" says Jose Ramirez, Manuel's son-in-law who now runs the business.

"He had a crazy idea and he started to invent, to try things with meat, with fish," says Jose.

He might have stopped at chipi-chipi, a small Caribbean mollusk, but Manuel was clearly not a man to hold back on a hunch. New flavors followed when he experimented with garlic as well as onion-flavored ice cream.

Soon Manuel's imagination knew no limits and the number of wacky flavors, and his reputation, grew.

"People were coming to try some strange things," said Luis Marquez, a young local in the mountain town of Merida who grew up coming to the Coromoto.

In 1991, just a decade after opening and a world away from plain old vanilla, the Heladeria Coromoto got an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for providing the most flavors of any ice cream parlor in the world — at the time, 386.

But Manuel, a Portuguese immigrant, continued to innovate and play with people's tastebuds.

Black bean ice cream soon followed, chilli, beetroot, up to a staggering 860 flavors.

The shop quickly became a key attraction in Merida, an Andean city of 450,000 that is also known for having the world's highest cable-car ride, 4,765 meters above sea level. 

Now it comes highly recommended in tourist guides such as Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor.

But Venezuela's deepening economic crisis since the collapse of crude oil prices in 2014 meant it became an ordeal to source raw materials over the last few years.

"For years we have been suffering from shortages and we buy on the black market. We cannot get products from our traditional suppliers," said Jose, 56.

Up to now, Jose has always managed to scrape by. "But the situation got more complicated this year."

As many Venezuelans battle hunger and malnutrition because of an economic and political crisis, some will see it as another beautiful thing that has gone in a country dazed from months of often violent protests that killed 125 people.

"We made efforts, we tried to keep going to the maximum, but the time has come when I can't resist anymore," says Jose.

Ice cream a luxury 

"We were trying to keep prices affordable, but eating ice cream is a luxury for many people," Jose admits.

Sales fell by half between 2015 and 2016, and half again in the past year.

"Before, in the high season, it was madness. The shop was full. But those days are gone."

At Coromoto, two scoops of ice cream cost 5,000 bolivars, or $1.50 at the official exchange rate. Not a negligible sum in a country where the minimum monthly salary is 136,543 bolivars, around $40, supplemented with a government voucher of 189,000 bolivars, around $56.

That means a couple with two children could splurge more than one-sixth of the minimum wage to enjoy an ice cream each.

On the first Monday in September, Jose hung up his scoops and closed Heladeria Coromoto, defeated by the impossible task of getting the essential raw materials of ice cream — sugar and milk — in any meaningful quantity in Venezuela. Not to mention octopus.

Manuel, now 86, has long since taken a back seat.

"This shop has been a tradition for tourists over the years," said local resident Mina Perez, outside the now-closed yellow doors. "It make me so sad."

Living with shortages has become routine for Venezuelans as oil revenue no longer finances imports.

Rows of empty shelves greet them in shops, and endless lines in front of pharmacies means finding food or medicine is a daily challenge for so many Venezuelans. The IMF says the country faces the world's worst inflation, 720 percent, this year.

Last year, the shop was no longer profitable and Jose was forced to close for three months, but he managed to reopen it.

Ice cream is low on the list of priorities for life. And yet, Jose dares to dream of another revival.

"Who knows, maybe we can reopen again!"


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