Chocolate can take many forms, but it all originates from Theobroma cacao, a plant that grows in Africa, South America, and Central America (with Africa leading production). South American beans are smaller and said to be more flavorful than African varieties, while African beans are noted primarily for their larger size. Most cacao beans used in commercial production come from a plant that is a hybrid of South American and African cacao, yielding a medium sized, medium flavored bean. But it is still possible to find “true” South American chocolate. In Peru, they call it “chuncho”- and it is said to have the best flavor.
I had the amazing opportunity to work on a cacao farm in Estrella, Peru in March of 2014. We reached the small village after a 14 hour bus ride that twisted through the massive mountains as we descended into the jungle valley. I was there with two others my age and the gracious couple that hosted us- Nati and Oswaldo. The husband Oswaldo lives and works on the cacao field nearly all year round, while Nati ventures back and forth from the jungle town of Estrella to the family’s small hotel and café in Pisac, Cusco, Peru.
Situated in an oasis of plant diversity, growing around the cacao fields was coffee, bananas, ginger, “jungle potatoes”, and trees of limes, oranges, avocado and papaya. But these familiar fruits and roots sat amongst a menagerie of bio-diverse plant and animal life. Twisting vines, furry caterpillars with spikes, and lush plant life of all shapes, sizes, and uses. Nati and Oswaldo would feed my herbal intrigue, telling me about medicinal plants we encountered while working or walking. Oswaldo told me one day “they say that every plant has a medicinal use, we just don’t know about them all yet”.
We were called down for breakfast by 6:30 each morning, when puffy clouds still hovered around the house, about to clear way for the strong sun (or rain). We ate simple preparations of fruit, potatoes, oatmeal, or occasionally pancakes. After eating we would get into gear for whatever that workday required. We dressed as best we could to shield our skin from the relentless mosquitoes, while also coping with the heat and humidity of the jungle. Tasks were varied, but included measuring the field, harvesting cacao fruits, distributing baby plants to their holes, and preparing beans for fermentation.
THE CACAO PROCESS
- Cacao pods are harvested from trees when ripe. Ripeness is determined by the color of the fruit, which varies with each variety. In Estrella grew two different kinds- one signaled ripe by a bright yellow pod, and another by a deep red color.
- Fruit pods are split open with a machete, and cacao seeds (beans) are removed. (Surrounding the beans is the delicious white, mucilaginous fruit of the cacao plant)
- Beans are placed into a wooden crate for fermentation. Banana leaves are placed over the beans, followed by a layer of plastic, in order to insulate the heat of the fermentation.
- Beans are stirred and moved into a new section of the wooden crate every day or so. They are usually fully fermented after 4-5 days.
- When done fermenting, beans are moved somewhere to dry, usually in the sun or a greenhouse. The drying process usually takes 1-2 days.
- After beans are fully dry, they are roasted (in this process the husks of the bean are removed), then ground into a paste and solidified into bars of pure cacao. In spanish this is called, “la pasta pura de cacao” (pure chocolate paste). In English it is sometimes referred to as chocolate liquor or cooking chocolate.
HOW TO USE
This yields a rich, delicious cup of hot chocolate, similar to what the Mayans would drink.
- Chop into a powder or as tiny pieces as possible.
- Use about 1 Tablespoon of cacao powder per 1 cups of water. This is just a general ratio, which can be adjusted to your liking. (Try to chop the chocolate as fine as you can for less cooking time; small pieces are okay, but it will make more cooking time to break them down).
- Bring to a simmer. Simmer for at least 15 minutes, or until chocolate particles are mostly dissolved (if chopped pieces are on the bigger side, you may need to simmer it a little longer).
- Optional: Sweeten with about 1 teaspoon of honey per cup of chocolate (or as much as you like).
- You can also experiment by adding some herbs or natural flavorings. Try: cardamom, sea salt, marshmallow, elderberry, cinnamon, black pepper, cayenne pepper, lavender, orange rind, or vanilla bean.
Pure cacao can be substituted for cocoa powder in most recipes, just be aware that this pure variety has a higher fat content than cocoa. So if using in a recipe that calls for another fat source (butter or oil), you may want to use a little bit less added fat.
For a punch of chocolate flavor
Try using cacao in raw desserts, smoothies, oatmeal and savory sauces too!
More information on Theobroma cacao: