November is here and that means some awesome things are happening in Panama: Independence days (yes, plural) parades, random festivals, and most importantly... chocolate season.
While chocolate (cacao) trees can produce fruit all year long, the biggest harvests are November-early January. Having always been a chocolate lover, I was ecstatic to learn I'd be working with the production and processing of one of nature's most delicious fruits. Though I've always preferred the business side of my job, even I have to admit that getting to work with each step of the chocolate process is pretty cool.
From pre-service training (PST) to chocolate week at in-service training to simply working with my neighbors in site, I've learned so much about chocolate this year and am excited to finally be blogging about it!
Cacao trees take 5 years to produce their first fruits, but can continue producing for ~50 years!
Ripe cacao pods are bright yellow, orange, and red and roughly the size of a nurf ball
The beans aren't brown- they're actually a deep purple until toasted
The milky white gel that surrounds each bean tastes like a watermelon jolly rancher
White chocolate is made by cooking the natural fats out of the darker chocolate
Cacao trees can only grow at certain latitudes
The Ngäbere word for chocolate is Oreba
I can get a fist-sized ball of chocolate for 70¢... it's almost dangerous
Cacao trees are generally started in small bags in a vivero- a tree nursery that provides partial shade and protection from the elements. After a few months, they are ready to be planted in forested tropical areas with plenty of heat, sun, and rain. Three-five years after planting, the trees should be producing their first harvests and with good care and maintenance can continue to produce chocolate for up to 50 years- though they generally produce their highest volume harvests between 10 and 20 years of age.
Our trees produce the majority of their fruits between November and January, and when it's time to harvest, the whole family heads to the farm! After being clipped from lower branches or guillotined off of higher ones, cacao pods are collected (usually in a backpack basket) and then cut open in order to get to the good stuff- cacao beans surrounded by a white, milky fruit.
After being collected from their pods, cacao beans are fermented in wooden boxes for 3-7 days before being sun-dried for another ~10 days. Some driers are much nicer than others and have rollaway rain covers or multiple floors, but the most basic option is a simple raised wooden platform. Ideally, beans should be mixed with a wooden rake every few hours to ensure even drying.
Next, the cacao beans are toasted for up to an hour, thereby making your house smell wonderful. After they take a moment to cool off, the beans are then peeled. At this point they're called nibs and can be eaten just like that. They're pretty bitter and taste similar to a coffee bean. To continue with the chocolate making process, the nibs are ground into a thick paste. No liquids are added in this part- it becomes pasty thanks to all of the natural oils present in cacao! If desired, you can then put the paste in molds (or banana leaves) to let them harden over the next few hours.
Finally- chocolate! Though expensive, modern machinery is needed to produce the smooth chocolate bars we buy in stores, there's something seriously delicious about eating the same chocolate you picked off the tree.
Marketing and Selling
Depending on how the community intends to use or sell their cacao, from this point there's a few different routes they can take. If they're using their cacao, the mothers of the family will likely heat the cocoa with water and sugar to make a dark hot cocoa which is delicious when cooked with lemongrass. While some communities do sell fully processed chocolate bars, most sell the raw, dried beans to a cooperative or middleman who can then sell them on the international market. Beans are usually cut in half and tested for moisture content and overall quality before an offer is made. After that, the beans are packaged according to quality and are on their way to becoming the chocolate you know and love!
Interested in learning how to use cacao in baking or cooking recipes? Check back next week for my favorite chocolate recipes!