After thoroughly frying our nerves with a wide variety of Costa Rica’s 8-legged residents (spiders, I’m talking about all the spiders) we decided to check out the sweeter side of life via a walkabout through a cacao farm. The drive up to the top of the mountain on which the farm sat was pure treachery, to say the least. My little jalopy struggled to maintain the climb of the near vertical road while simultaneously trying to scale boulders set for traction that were constantly threatening to snap an axel. Having been raised in the Bread Basket of America, I am well versed on what a proper farm looks like, so when we pulled into a lot surrounded by nothing but wild growth I was a bit curious as to where the actual farming took place. Our guide, a local Tico, was armed with a machete that would’ve made Thor jealous and rubber boots that made me nervous. I’d seen those boots before, and I knew that they were worn for protection – not against the water, but against fast moving and potentially deadly vipers. In addition to the machete and boots, he carried with him a hooked stick, one for wrangling snakes. This did not bode well. Regretting that I’d worn shorts and tennis shoes, I hoped for the best, but internally allowed my anxiety to work up for the worst case scenario. At least we’d be able to see the snake in broad daylight if it were to attack here, rather than being blindsided in the pitch-black of night.
A waiver was not signed for this activity, so up until meeting the guide I did not assume that danger would be involved in a farm tour. When would I learn that outside of the manicured lawns and pesticide-soaked resorts, Costa Rica is a playground for a plethora of wildly dangerous and terrifying things!? It was a mere 3 feet into the bush that our guide stopped and whispered for us to look to our left, at about eye-level. Not seeing anything, I took a step closer… still nothing. The guide used his snake hook to point out what was the single largest snake I have ever seen in the wild.
This was no Fur-de-Lance viper, but it was unnerving nevertheless for where there’s one, there’s probably more and we were just getting started. Having had a previous close call with an aforementioned viper, I kept an eye to the ground so as to not test my luck a second time. A good portion of my focus went to scanning for snakes, while the remainder was spent on listening to the guide explain how mono crops are systematically ruining ecosystems, thus the wild and diverse ‘farmland’ we were now tromping our way through. Cacao trees were interspersed throughout various other trees, shrubs, and jungle flora, and while I really regretted not wearing pants I was mildly relieved when we stopped in a clearing to study cacao.
The football shaped pods, among some other characteristics that I have completely forgotten about, were indicative of the cacao tree. These trees are native not only to Costa Rica, but much of Mesoamerica, and can grow upwards of 60 feet if left untapped. Most of the trees were were coming across were around 20 feet in height and bore around 10 pods that ranged in color from green to orange to purple. Inside of each pod are about 60 seeds covered in a white pulp, that upon the insistence of our guide, we tasted (not good). Not only was it unpleasant to eat, it didn’t resemble the taste of chocolate in the slightest.
I’m not naive enough to think that chocolate grows on trees complete with their silver wrappers and in bar form, however I was not expecting something so completely distant from the flavor I know and love. Harvesting the pods is but the beginning of what is quite a long and tedious process. The seeds are scooped out and thrown into large bins where they’re covered and left to ferment for a week. During this time the white fades to brown and the scent of what we recognize as chocolate begins to come through. Once the fermentation process is through, the seeds are then spread out on large trays to dry out.
It was while admiring this display that we were once again reminded that Costa Rica is a jungle gym of death. I heard a buzzing sound and the guide told everyone to freeze and not panic. Let me tell you something – when a large bug approaches your vicinity and a knowledgable person tells you not to panic, your first reaction will almost immediately be to panic. Of course it would be, and so it was with yours truly! The culprit for this need to not panic was my old friend, the tarantula hawk. I thought I had left that nightmare of a bug behind in Peru, but alas, we meet again!
Thankfully, after a circling us for what felt like several minutes (but, in reality, was only seconds) she flew off on her merry way. We quickly shuffled into the pavilion where, hopefully, less lethal things were on the prowl. As we made our way down the mountain two bright green macaws went flying overhead screaming their little lungs out and unnerving me all the while (have you heard a macaw? It’s not a nice sound – a cross between a dinosaur howl and a banshee… or something equally as blood curdling.).
Back to the chocolate. The dried out seeds are then roasted and shelled via a a large rock:
The grounds are then gathered in a bucket and poured into a bowl that sits directly in front of a fan. The fan blows the shells away while the heavier nibs fall directly into the bowl (genius, right?!). The nibs are then ground into a paste and heated over a fire until it develops a liquid state. A touch of raw cane sugar is then added, to combat the extreme bitterness and it is ready to eat, and eat it we did!
While this was the best chocolate I had ever tasted, EVER – I ended up falling in love with the spiced drink that is said to have been the drink of the gods… Quetzalcoatl to be specific. Ah, yes. My chocolate travels would make a full circle later in the year on my trip to Teotihuacan in the fall, where I would visit the Temple of the Feathered Serpent also known as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. This Aztec god is said to have been disowned by the other deities of the time for sharing chocolate with mere mortals.
As I sit here writing this post while enjoying several pieces of chocolate I have to wonder, was Quetzalcoatl’s fall from grace worth it? Ultimately, he would end up setting himself on fire (over the guilt and shame from sleeping with his sister) and go on to become the Morning Star, so obviously this guy had some issues, but about the chocolate he was spot on!
On a more serious note, the production of chocolate thrives on a disgustingly unfair and inhuman way of treating farmers. Slaves are used in much of the West African production of chocolate and farmers are kept in extreme poverty while the industry makes bank off of their loss. There are fair trade and sustainable ways to purchase chocolate that helps to ensure that you’re not feeding into the slave trade or shorting farmers out of a fair price. For further reading please check these sites out: