Up the river and through a jungled forest, I found myself in a grove of moss-covered trees with hanging oblong fruits — each of these somewhat resembling small squash in assorted colors of yellow and purplish red. “Theobroma Cacao” also known as “Food of the Gods” — regal cacao — it is befitting that these ancient trees are the mother bearing the fruit of our beloved chocolate. Yet with their gnarled limbs exuding a kind of old magic and wisdom, the “other” secret they carry is medicinal, not just sweet.
Historical discovery of the cacao tree is credited to the ancient Amazonian civilizations of Mesoamerica. The medicinal qualities of this plant can be traced back thousands of years to when the Mayans and Aztecs drank, not ate, the fermented derivative of cacao — chocolate. Before resembling anything close to chocolatey goodness, the bitter, dark seeds [beans] of the cacao fruit must first change their chemistry through fermentation to transform compounds, aroma, and flavor.
Chocolate Production in Costa Rica
A trek out to Yorkin village near the Caribbean coast revealed a glimpse into chocolate artistry from the Bribri, an indigenous community with deep roots in cacao farming. Led by Umberto, a Bribri and cacao farmer, I was shown that the community is utilizing manual methods of processing cacao into chocolate since they are lacking modern technologies. The end result is handcrafted, delectable, and unadulterated chocolate devoid of impurities, refinement and excess sugars.
No matter the technology available on hand, the general outline for transforming cacao into chocolate remains the same throughout history: (1) harvest fruit; (2) remove seeds and surrounding pulp from pods; (3) fermentation; (4) drying; (5) roasting; and (6) winnowing. Depending on your climate and environs (or any simulation of microclimate), the length of time each of these processes will take can vary. For example, in the higher coastal lands of Costa Rica, the fermentation process takes about 4-6 days in an airy outside room that is protected from the elements. Once harvested, the pulp covered beans are put into burlap or sisal bags to prepare them for the fermentation process. During fermentation, the pulp and beans are naturally heated to the point of the pulp liquifying and the seeds germinating (which creates that “chocolate” taste). After fermentation is complete, the cacao beans are dried for about 5-7 days in good sun (longer if there isn’t good sun) on elevated boards protected from rain. Once that is completed, the beans will be roasted for 1-2 hours to develop the flavor and aroma.
During the final step — winnowing — local communities use a good sized round rock to crush and remove the shell of the beans and then separate out the cacao nibs (featured photo). The nibs that emerge are then grinded by hand to create liquid chocolate. The Bribri of Yorkin do not supplement their chocolate with any additives, thus the resulting product is pure, bitter, and organic.
Despite the hot temperatures of the Caribbean coast, the Bribri’s chocolate bars do not melt while in storage. This is an easy way to test the extent to which a bar of chocolate has been refined— by observing how susceptible it is to warm temperatures and humidity since it is the sugar and other additives that are quicker to melt. As you can see from the photo above, the Bribri do not remove the cocoa butter [beneficial fat] from their chocolate as you can find happening with mass produced chocolate.
The Bribri feel strongly about permaculture and ecological design within their communities. In visiting their villages you will see that they are incorporated into the landscape, in the midst of food forests — this is their natural way of life, not a new concept like in many of our own communities. In keeping with these principles, all of their products are organic and sustainably produced.
Cacao, Using this Food as Medicine
As Hippocrates said “let food be thy medicine” and what better one than chocolate? Cacao is rich in antioxidant flavonoids [polyphenols] — compounds that support the plant to resist certain diseases and pests — making it beneficial food-as-medicine (and justifying that chocolate craving!). For thousands of years Amazonian cultures have used cacao beans for medicinal and religious purposes (ancient rulers consumed vast quantities of chocolate!). Recent scientific studies have revealed that consumption of flavonoid-rich plant-based foods, such as cacao, are effective in preventing chronic illnesses, including cancer and coronary disease. The most prominent flavonoid compound present in cacao is quercetin, which has anti-inflammatory properties. These flavonoids in cacao are known to reduce oxidation of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or “bad cholesterol.” Cacao is also known to have anti-depressant and mood enhancing properties — no wonder we want to eat all of it!
The Bribri culture believes that chocolate is cleansing and protects individuals from disease. Historically, different communities of Bribri would make chocolate and pipe it down to small huts housing a postpartum woman and her baby. They would bathe in the chocolate in order to “cleanse” the woman and protect the baby.
The Chocolate Tree — Ecologically, Culturally and Economically Significant
The transference of knowledge on the importance of cacao: medicinally, spiritually, and economically is a high priority for the indigenous Bribri. Once upon a time, cacao forests were plentiful along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. A plant most sacred and economically plentiful for indigenous people and Afro-Caribbeans alike, the destructive impact of fungal disease currently affects its fruitful bounty and ecological presence. Proactive disease management efforts are ongoing in an attempt to protect the species and livelihoods of local people. Communities, with support from government and development agencies, are grafting disease resistant varieties to infected species in hopes of saving their crop and maintaining their organic practices.
Through agritourism and advocacy efforts, the Bribri hope to stroke the heart strings of many, making a plea to the chocolate-loving world to support Costa Rican communities in preserving the ecology of their lands and traditions of their ancestors, while simultaneously providing viable income for the people. You can support these native communities by purchasing chocolate fair-trade from collectives that directly represent small farmers’ interests.
Link to APPTA — Bribri farmers
Reposted from my food writings on the Ashevillage blog