Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chocolate from Scratch

And now for a more exotic story about taking advantage of local food resources, my sister has written in to share her experience in Costa Rica making homemade chocolate. She’s staying at Finca Luna Nueva this summer in northwest Costa Rica to do research for her masters in conservation biology, looking at the types of plants that grow in old ginger fields.

There’s a relic of a cacao orchard on the property from 30 or 40 years before the current owners bought the farm, and most of the trees are bare, the fruits having been eaten by squirrels or overtaken by mold. But another farm intern joined me to scout out a bunch of ripe cacao fruits, which are football-sized and bright yellow, and we decided to take on a little side project: making chocolate from scratch. The cacao pods are dark red or green when unripe, and they grow right from the trunk and branches, a characteristic somewhat common in the tropics, called cauliflory.

cacao pods, picked

The first thing you do with a ripe pod is smash it on a rock to split it in half - that’s the technical protocol. The outside of the pod is about 3/4 of an inch thick, but should be easily breakable via this method when they’re ripe. On the inside is a mass of about 50 one inch long oblong seeds covered in a copious amount of white goo. This white goo is 1) the actual fruit of the cacao 2) a little bit sour and a little bit sweet 3) unlike any other fruit 4) amazingly delicious 5) kind of really disgusting looking, especially when you zoom in on it.

cacao fruit

Take all the seeds out and lay them intact on a plate to let them ferment in the sun for 7 days, making sure to bring under some sort of shelter if it rains (this part became quite a saga for us considering that we’re in the rainforest, running up and down the stairs several times a day to protect our precious little cacao experiment!). Once the seeds are fully fermented, they white goo will turn a dark reddish brown and become sticky.

cacao fruit drying

Then you’re ready for the most tedious but enjoyable work - peeling the seeds. At this point, they smell pretty damn amazing (like some dank dark chocolate cake), but it took us about two hours for the both of us to shell 60 seeds. The seeds begin as a dark purple color when the fruit is ripe, and after fermentation and drying become a deep, dark (what else) chocolate color.

shelling cacao beans

After this is done, all you need to do is finely grind the beans in a coffee or spice grinder to get pure cacao powder.

cacao beans, before and after shelling ground cacao

This is a quintessential local Costa Rican food experience that I was pretty thrilled about, since it’s something that I’ve always wanted to learn but never had access to in the United States. Plus, (I’m not gonna lie) it was almost more satisfying than my academic research project. I’ll be bringing some of the cacao powder back for my sister, so she can make me something really delicious without the guilt of using an incredibly non-local product. Hooray!

Ok I better start thinking about what to make! Fudge, brownies, chocolate ice cream...?


  1. Fuck. Your sister is a farm intern? Why am I not surprised! How amazing are you two.

    Whatever you do, be prepared for it to be seriously intense and bitter. And the 'white goo' is AMAZING. I love that shit. We had ripe cocoa pods on the tables at our wedding - quite a few of them got broken open and eaten! There actually are a couple other tropical fruits that are similar in look and texture - ones we call soursop and sugar apple for example.

    And now I'm really really homesick. Sigh.

  2. holy crap. that is the coolest thing. Seriously, you always have fantastically awesome posts.

    the white goo DOES look really really gross. like something from Aliens.

  3. Wow. That white goo is pretty gross looking. But how cool!!! You let me know when you get that stuff. I'll be over for brownies.

  4. Yum! I say don't adulterate it with too many ingredients... What about some simply delicious hot chocolate? (I know it's summer, but it's chilly over here in SF). Also, how would one go about making solid chocolate from this powder?

  5. Oh wow, this is seriously cool. I was considering grinding my own flours, but I think this beats that!

  6. Agirl- my sister is the one who does way more exciting stuff. How fun that you had cacao for the tasting at your wedding!

    Melina- do tell more about ur flour grinding plans. I have thought about it bc local wheat berries are cheaper than flour but worried about too coarse a grind

    Kara- nope, no way I will make hot chocolate. Ny is still in a heat wave. I must look into how one does make a chocolate bar or perhaps truffles.

  7. this post rocks my world. that is pretty amazing. your sister is so cool.

  8. your sister just blew my mind and made my day. i especially appreciate the attention to scientific detail, like how the pod grows off the trunk of the tree (so crazy!) and that the white goo is actually the fruit.

    here's a super nerdy question for her, or two, rather: does the pod start as a flower, and if yes, what pollinates cocao flowers?


  9. this is so darn cool! sometimes i feel like i'm wasting my life... :)

  10. bigBANG - the pod does start as a really cute little whitish yellow flower, and they grow all along the trunk and the large branches. Heavily commercial cacao farms can have hundreds of flowers at a time (which looks really beautiful) but our trees only had 10 or 20. They're small, and not super showy, but still cute. Normally they're pollinated by midges which are like little gnat-like bugs, which i think makes cacao a little more difficult to grow outside of its normal range because of the specificity, or maybe that's just because I don't that many cacao growers.

    I'm glad you liked the post!
    I'm always trying to get my sister to let me write guest posts about my weird food stories, so it's a lot of fun when she lets me.

  11. Wow! Amazing!! I so want to try this at some point now...

  12. WOW. this is so amazing!!!!! Also I think I just realized I've been following your old blog and wondering why I never saw new posts pop up--I've always just had to come here, to see what you are up too!! oops!--more proof that grad school can sometimes make you lose brain cells ;-)

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