Wow! It’s Cacao in Costa Rica!
A little while back I had the opportunity to visit Monteverde, a destination at the peak of the continental divide, rich with adventure and beauty. During our trip, we decided to tour a local coffee and sugar cane plantation called Don Juan. Though the company does not grow cacao on site, with the cooperation of nearby farms, Don Juan is able to dedicate about half of their tour to the processing.
For those of you who don’t know, cacao is another word for cocoa or chocolate. Pre-Columbian societies would use the product as a form of currency or else make it into an almost sacred drink. Interestingly, despite the modern understanding that chocolate is a girl’s best friend, these original hot cocoa drinks were only to be consumed by males.
Perhaps the most surprising part of our tour was the pod itself. Believe it or not, the image above is a split cacao pod from which the cocoa beans are taken. The seeds themselves are surrounded by an almost orange-flavored fruit, but once fermented make for a nasty smell.
After fermentation the seeds are laid out to dry. Our guide showed us two areas: one where the cocoa and coffee beans were laid out on the ground, and another where they were suspended on grids (see above). The grids help pick out broken or ill-formed beans.
The beans must dry just the right amount. Processing them too soon or leaving them out too long can vastly alter the flavor. When the bean is ready, it will be a bit brittle but have the recognizable dark chocolate flavor.
From here on out the process is much faster. The dried bean can then be ground into a smooth substance. I am sure that major productions use large machines for this part, but we had fun trying to grind the beans ourselves. The product of the grinding can be consumed as is, melted, or mixed with add-ins such as cinnamon or sugar. To make hot chocolate, all one needs to do is add hot water.
Another process strips the “butter” from the cacao that makes cocoa butter and white chocolate. At any rate, you are left with a delicious treat that leaves you wanting more!