A couple of years ago I was in Costa Rica and I was enchanted by a tour that was offered by one of our ecolodges: The Tropical Chocolate Tour. Well how could you resist?
We took off from La Tirimbina centre and over to their private reserve on an island in the Sarapiqui River, swinging suspended bridge and all. We walked along rainforest paths leading to an old plantation. Here we discovered the quite suprising way that chocolate starts out.
The cacao tree forms pods, not unlike a squash. The pod is made up of a fairly thick and fleshy portion and inside are seeds about the size of marbles. The texture is all a little bit slimy. But wait..there’s more. The smell is not what you expect, kind of pungent and sourish, but within this complex set of aromas is the hint of what will come later.
The seeds are taken out and laid into flat trays where they ferment. This is when the magic starts. That slimy kind of pungent goo on the seeds goes through a biological reaction with microorganisms that actually creates the taste of chocolate. Once they have reached a ripe enough state, the seeds are roasted and this step creates all the compelxity of the taste of cocoa. The aroma in the roasting room is warm and exquisite and makes one think of the Mexican book Like Water for Chocolate, or the movie Chocolat. (Just as an aside, the word chocolate comes from the Nahuatl word xocolatl, the language of the Aztecs).
At this point in the tour you start to get to the interactive part. You are given another ancient tool, a mortar and pestle and you begin to hand grind mill the seeds into a warm paste. A little cinnamon and sugar are added and OMG, you have a very tasty snack of pure chocolate. The seeds are very fatty and contain the cocoa butter which makes the product we all love.
There’s a great deal more information on wikipedia if you are wanting more, but this is far better in real life. This guided program became a standard in all the tours we offer in this part of Costa Rica. You can find them on the tours page of the website.