As I was riding a rented bicycle south along the road from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica to quieter Caribbean beaches away from the pueblo, I saw a sign for Chocoart at the start of a dirt road, heading west into the lush jungle. It said that it sold chocolates and conducted tours. Even though a day at the beach was my goal, how could I turn down the chance to learn more about chocolate?
Marcus, a rustic Swiss man who has lived in Costa Rica for almost twenty years, is the owner of the farm and was our tour guide for the afternoon. Armed with a pole with a U-shaped hook to reach cacao pods high up in trees and with a machete to hack open the fruit and any threatening snakes, Marcus led us through his farm and demonstrated each step of growing cacao and transforming it into chocolate.
The luscious food that is chocolate starts as football-shaped pods of an evergreen tree, Theobroma cacao, which is thought to have originated in the Amazon. Wherever it may have had its start, cacao grows in very specific conditions, at an elevation of 650–1300 ft, in a humid environment with regular rainfall and good soil. While on my bicycle, I could see these trees growing neglected on the side of the road, the remains of a once-vital growing area that was destroyed by a fungus that came in from Ecuador. Some think that it was an intentional introduction by multinational banana growers so that they could get land cheaply.
I had seen a cacao pod before, but never "live" on a tree, and I certainly had never seen its petite, delicately/pink flowers, growing directly on the truck.
There are many varieties of cacao, and here Marcus is showing us two different kinds. They develop different colors when they have reached maturity and are ready to be harvested.
With his trusty machete, Marcus hacked a ripe pod in half, along its equator, and invited us to suck on the white, fleshy pulp that surrounds each seed/bean. The pulp was surprisingly yummy and tasted nothing like chocolate. It had more of a refreshing citrus flavor, maybe like a sour sop. Out of curiosity, I bit into a seed and it was horribly bitter.
After the pods have been harvested, the beans are fermented along with their fleshy pulp for three to nine days, a process which creates compounds that give the seeds their chocolate flavor. To halt fermentation, the now- dark-brown beans are dried. At Marcus' farm, where everything is done on a small scale, the beans are left to dry on a table in the sun, an apparatus that many local families used to have to make chocolate at home. When it rains, Marcus rolls a corrugated iron cover over the drying beans. They are also raked regular to aerate them and hasten drying.
At Chocoart, the discarded pods are deposited into a pile, where they decompose easily into fertile soil.
Once the beans are dry, they are toasted, like coffee beans. In this small factory (if you can call it this!), this process is done in a wok-like pan over an open fire. This is our first scent of chocolate.
The next step is to remove the husks of the beans, which this employee is doing by rolling a heavy, round stone over them.
To get rid of the husks, the employee pours the crushed beans onto the floor in front of a fan. The husks are so light that they float away from the precious beans, which are now called chocolate nibs.
The nibs are ground into a paste by hand.
An assistant adds melted raw sugar to the chocolate paste. Since the amount of sugar equals the weight of the chocolate beans, Chocoart's chocolate is considered 50 percent cacao. This seems quite low these days when most chocolate lovers don't settle for anything less than 70 percent, but Marcus' confections have a wonderful rich flavor, since there isn't anything else in them except sugar. On top of that, no cocoa butter has been removed.
The warm, finished product accompanied by slices of local bananas. This was definitely worth giving up a day at the beach!
Enjoy some chocolate today (preferably Fair Trade), knowing now all that goes into growing and producing it.
Cheers! Diana Pittet, the roving, chocolate-loving cheesemonger