One of the most fascinating excursions that Dan and I have taken while visiting the Caribbean is a tour of a Chocolate Farm in Limon, Costa Rica.
The bus ride was a bit long, but our guide was great at sharing information about her country and she was obviously very proud of their accomplishments. Limon is not much unlike many of the poor cities in the Caribbean – so it was heartwarming hearing our guide speak so lovingly of her home.
Cacao has deep roots in the history of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The farm is a permaculture farm where resident volunteers and staff work to restore the cacao and forest garden, in a balanced ecological and sustainable way. We took a guided hike through a cacao forest and learned about the history and science of chocolate. After seeing how the chocolate is grown, cultivated and made into something edible, we got to enjoy a chocolate tasting.
As we hiked through the farm, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of two of the three species of monkeys that live in the area: howler and spider (we didn’t see the 3rd species capuchin). We also saw lots (but not all of the) common bird species: toucans, egrets, green and great blue herons, jacanas and parrots – these are just a few of the hundreds of different birds that inhabit this area. Other animals commonly observed in the waterways are fishing bats, iguanas, lizards, sloths, and crocodiles.
Our tour guide showed us a mature cacao pod and explained they’re often opened with machetes, but he showed us how the monkeys do it – he cracked it open. Inside were white, gooey segments that we broke off and tasted. They were rather sweet and a little slimy, but the cocoa seed inside is bitter.
The seeds are left to ferment for six days, our guide told us, until the gooey white pulp sloughs off, leaving the crucial bean. These are left to dry in the sun for a couple of weeks or so, until they turn toasty brown. We all had a taste of one of these beans — it tasted like chocolate missing the sugar, which is exactly what it is.
Then we came to the main event. A woman in a blue dress stood behind a table littered with roasted cocoa beans. There was a tray containing little saucers and jars of brown sugar, powdered milk, condensed milk, vanilla extract and water. The woman roasted chocolate beans over a wood fire, then expertly cracked them open. Our guide showed us how to grind them up with a hand-cranked appliance resembling a meat grinder. The young woman then went to work with this chocolatey paste. She put the cocoa in a bowl, added all the other ingredients and mixed it vigorously with a wooden spoon
She asked for two volunteers from our tour group, who washed their hands and helped her knead the chocolate. She demonstrated how to take a big handful and squeeze and re-squeeze it and roll it in your hands until it’s in the shape of a ball. Then she put her chocolate ball on a plate and mashed it flat, creating a fudge pancake. She invited the volunteers to put their own chocolate balls in the middle of her pancake and mash them into it — creating a super pancake. The pancake is then shaped it into a perfect circle, making sure it was flat and pretty, and then she sliced it into bite-sized pieces. It’s a little bitter, but if you like dark chocolate, you’ll love it. Dan doesn’t care for dark chocolate so lucky me! After his first tepid bite, I got to finish his piece as well! It was very smooth and confectionary-like – I totally enjoyed it!
Recently, Dan and I took my dad and brother, who were visiting from Arizona, to the Whetstore Chocolate factory here in St. Augustine. It was fascinating to hear more about how chocolate is cultivated and see the end products being transformed into what we all see in the candy stores. Just knowing the origins of the cacao and knowing how it starts out as a bean and ends up as a delicious chocolate bar, brought the entire tour in Limon home! I highly recommend you take the tour if you’re ever able to do so!
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