Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Chocolate Forest

June 15

We began the day by taking a leisurely stroll through a chocolate forest. OK, maybe not so leisurely as it was uphill, rocky, and damp. Our tour guide was a cool guy from Minnesota. He was very knowledgeable about the chocolate trade and extremely interested in sustainability and fair trade practices. That was enough to encourage me to buy chocolate—mucho chocolate. J He and his business partner purchased this land and are in the process of cleaning it up as they learn how to make chocolate. A blight once weakened and nearly destroyed the forest, so it had been left without any attention for years. He discussed how wines are developed and marketed—the type of grape, the region, the year, and questioned why chocolate wasn’t the same. Good question! The mass producers of cacao trees are in Africa, and are focused more on quantity vs. quality. Hershey’s has to get their chocolate from somewhere. Theirs is a smaller production, but they also work with other small producers in the area to process and market their chocolate. Chocolate flavors are derived based on several factors—how long and how quickly the beans are allowed to dry, how mature they are, and the region they come from, among others. Next time you take a bite of that piece of chocolate, consider that!

As our guide talked about the production of chocolate and sustainability, he mentioned how their goal is to make chocolate in such a way to best help the Costa Ricans—their workers. Traditional chocolate making only sees the workers receive a small percentage of the profit. Their goal is to have them receive closer to 80%. In order for that to happen, the growers/harvesters must also be heavily involved in the production of the chocolate from the cacao beans. I was very impressed by the efforts not to exploit and maximize the owners’ dollars, but to make extreme efforts to help the Ticos—the workers, the ones who know and carry on the tradition of making chocolate, receive more of the fruits of their labors all while carrying out environmentally conscious practices that focus on sustainability. Oh, how I wish I knew more companies in the USA that focused on taking care of those on the “front lines.”  Anyhow when they package chocolate for production, they don’t add any of the fillers and things whose names you don’t know how to pronounce. It’s chocolate in its purest form—a bite of heaven. I was so glad to do my part to support the local economy after our tour. J

As we were leaving, we told the guide thank you and that we appreciated all he and his partner and family are doing. He said he felt that he didn’t find the chocolate forest, but that it found him. He believes in a higher power and feels that it was that higher power that led them to own this beautiful piece of land near the Caribbean. Additionally, he said he and his wife had been trying to conceive a child when still in the USA, but finally decided that wasn’t in the cards for them. This opportunity came, they jumped on it, moved here, and eventually found out that they were blessed with a child (his words). His entire spiel about this gave me goose bumps. I am sure that their endeavor will result in great opportunities for the local Ticos as well as give the world a bit of great tasting chocolates.

As part of our experience, we had the opportunity to taste four very different chocolates while sitting up high on the side of the mountain with a view of the Caribbean. Too bad it was a cloudy, rainy day, but it was still beautiful. We were instructed to smell the chocolate, listen to the sound of it as we broke it in two, pay attention to the after taste, etc. My favorite was a bitter, creamy dark, though most preferred one that was a little less creamy-that one was chalky to me. The one most of us did not prefer was one with floral undertones. Next, we drank some of the chocolate xotacl (spelling is wrong, I am sure).  I like it—warm, spicy with cayenne, sweetened with a touch of honey and vanilla. Finally, and the most surprising part of our tour, was the pairings. Small pieces of the four chocolates were brought out along with a selection of herb and spices. We had fresh garlic, fresh ginger, cilantro, an oregano like herb, something that I think is similar to tarragon, peppermint, vanilla, salt, pepper, curry, cinnamon, cayenne, and ground coffee. We were instructed to concoct our own bites with a blend of several of the flavors provided. My favorite was the creamy chocolate dipped in vanilla, cinnamon, and ground coffee. Delisioso. However, the garlic and ginger both paired very well with the rich flavors of the chocolate. Imagine that! Maybe I’ll plan a chocolate tasting/pairing for friends when I get back home, and serve wine to wash it all down. Any takers?

Let there be chocolate………………….And it was good (front and back of a t-shirt) 

View from the bathroom during our chocolate tour--this was a part of the "factory" where they process the chocolate. Many bottles made up part of the wall. 

THe menu at the chocolate shop--I purchased some of all I think

The chocolate/herb/spice pairing

Cacao fruit and flowers

The cacao processing area

Our awesome chocolate tour guide/owner

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