Thursday, March 7, 2013

Tree-to-Bar Chocolate in Costa Rica

During our visit to Costa Rica, one of our guides showed us a cacao farm run by one of his friends. The farm was producing chocolate, but was only a handful of years old and still in the early stages. Nonetheless he was able to show us the complete cycle of turning the fruit of a cacao tree into chocolate.

Cacao Tree and Pod

Here is the tree and a relatively ripe fruit. As we walked through the grove the farmer would snip off occasional stray branches and rotten or misshapen pods so that more of the plant's energy was directed to healthy pods. It was clear immediately how labor intensive of a process it was, because the pods were all at different stages of ripeness.

Open Cacao Pod

Within the pods are the seeds, but they don't look very much like cocoa beans at this point. The milky white coating... the pulp... is actually quite sweet (we tried them), and apparently locals will suck on the seeds as a treat (the bean itself is bitter and inedible). At this stage they harvest the seeds and pulp... cutting open the pod with a machete and scooping them out by hand... for fermentation in large covered boxes, which takes somewhere on the order of a week.

Dried Cacao Beans

Once fermented the beans are dried, and finally resemble what most of us think of as cacao/cocoa beans. At this point they're ready for sale to chocolate factories and the like, and this is where those ever popular "bean-to-bar" chocolate operations get involved... by buying their beans directly from small farmers like this.

Ground Cacao

But if you had your own cacao tree farm, wouldn't you make your own chocolate? I mean, you need to make sure your beans are good right? We'll just call it quality control.

Homemade Chocolates

Just cacao beans and sugar... and made from trees just a hundred feet from where we were standing. Pretty cool.