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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...?