After a long conversation with John Curtis, I headed over through the dark city streets to Alfredo and his girlfriend Monica's house. I had a lump of raw chicle (chewing gum) in my backpack, and on the way there I picked up some "Dulce de Miel" (honey caramels).
The plan was to cook up a batch of chicle and try to make a prototype of a natural, handcrafted chewing gum with a honey caramel as the core. Far from being just a tasty treat, this product, if successful, could cause a small revolution in the dying chicle industry. Up until now, you see, the Chicleros have always been producers of a raw material. That raw material had a brief but impressive boom before going bust when petroleum replaced the Chicozapote tree as the world's source of gum base.
Though the market for chicle as a raw material has waned, the market for its final products, chewing gum and other candies, has never been stronger. If we can get just a few chiclero families to make and sell chewing gum directly, there's no telling what could happen.
But first, we need to cook. We threw a brick of dry, hard chicle into a pot of water, boiled it a bit, and soon it began to soften as the water burst into thousands of tiny air bubbles. Turns out, we used a bit too much water, and the stuff began to fall apart! Luckly, the core was still solid enough to hold together, yet pliable enough to work with. I pulled some out and tried to wrap it around one of the carmels, but soon learned that a) the carmel was way too big and b) chicle is really sticky!
Luckly, Monica had seen chicle being processed before, and knew that the stuff could only be worked with wet hands. Alfredo figured out how to cut the carmels without shattering them, and Monica expertly wrapped a wad of chicle around half a carmel. Still too big, but we gave it a try anyway.
The honey flavor was really strong and lasted only a few minutes, but the proof of concept was secure. The stuff was delicious!
"Of course you're gonna say that, Alfredo shot us down when we described the flavor, "we need to test it out in the field, with the people."
True, but we had at least proven that one doesn't need chemistry or machinery to make a passable candy from locally available materials. With a little marketing and taste testing, it should be possible to start a chicle revolution, one family at a time.