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.
This yields a rich, delicious cup of hot chocolate, similar to what the Mayans would drink.
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: