The rediscovery of cacao

Trinitario cacao, Ecuador

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he City of London. Round the corner from the Bank of England lies a tempting chocolatier. The board outside the shop says that “a chocolate business has existed in this place for 300 years”, going back to a time when chocolate was considered an elixir, an exotic beverage brought back from the Americas. “The first chance for the Spanish court to sample chocolate as drunk by the New World natives came with a delegation of Kekchi Maya Indians who arrived in 1544 bearing the sort of rich gifts they have given to their own overloads (…including 2,000 quetzal feathers and containers of beaten chocolate).

Chocolate and cacao soon became economic pillars of Spanish enterprise. And by degrees, people in Spain adopted the habit of drinking chocolate. Within fifty or sixty years, the custom had spread to France, Italy, England and most parts of Europe”, according to the book “The New Taste of Chocolate”, written by Maricel Presilla in 2001.

It is a grey, rainy day and the shadows of the buildings increase the darkness further. Strangely, the aroma of the chocolate from the shop takes me back to my childhood twenty years ago, to a bright, humid day in the tropics of South America. I give in to temptation and buy a box of chocolates: 15 truffles made out of fine cacao from Madagascar, Venezuela and Ecuador, a little something to indulge my friends later that night. And, while I select my chocolate variety, my memory drifts back to my father’s cacao Arriba Nacional plantation on his farm in Manabí, Ecuador.

The shop salesman reminds me that there are four more options to choose from before he is to serve a long queue of chocolate addicts patiently waiting in line for their fix. No one is able to resist the vast range of chocolate and very few customers could imagine the fascinatingly complex journey or transformation of a naïve cacao bean into an extravagant salt and caramel truffle.

Counter display at Paul A Young's Camden Passage shop

A few blocks away from St Paul’s Cathedral, a project officer at the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), Moisés Gómez, invites me for a coffee. It would be unthinkable for anyone belonging to the chocolate world to miss an opportunity to discuss this topic.

“People tend to see cacao farming as a romantic myth, but it is more than that, it is a culture”.
An old myth is that there are only three different types of cacao beans which are used in chocolate production: the “noble” Criollo, the common Forastero and a hybrid between the two, the Trinitario”.

Nowadays, according to a research called “Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree” made by Motamayor, Loor, Lachenaud, Da Silva, there are more than 10 different varieties of cacao: Amelonado, Contamama, Criollo, Curaray, Guiana, Iquitos, Maranon, Nacional, Nanay and Purus. Criollo was the predominant cocoa bean two hundred years ago but it became scarce after this, mainly because of the lack of resistance of this variety towards diseases. In fact, this was the variety of cacao that Europeans fell in love with. Perhaps, they felt mesmerized by the distinctive, complex taste, which can include flavours notes of nuts, cream, cherry and citrus.

From the plantation to the bar

Cacao growing in Colombia

When we talk about a journey, we should mention the harvest, fermentation and drying process. Here, the labour of the farmers is intrinsically relevant. “The pods are ready to harvest when they have reached their mature colour, which can be yellow, orange or red. The farmers separate the pod from the stem with a machete, and then crack the pod open with a special wooden slab so as not to cut the seeds.

The seeds are still attached and bound by a white pulp at the time of harvest and all of that material is placed in the fermentation container, which can be a wooden box, jute bag, or, less ideally, a plastic bucket. The beans should then ferment for three to seven days.

During this time, the pulp ferments and drains from the boxes and the full cacao flavour develops in the beans. Once the beans are fully fermented, they are spread out on a cement or wood drying surface, usually protected by a greenhouse-like sliding roof to protect them from rain, to fully dry out for a few days”, explains Claire Nicklin of Fundación Conservación y Desarrollo, in Quito, Ecuador.

Also, cacao is sometimes fermented on the ground, covered in banana leaves, or even hung in bags (and the liquid that comes off is used as vinegar).

Fermentation and drying

Bagging dried cacao, Ecuador

Even if all these processes and events come together perfectly, unless the cacao is properly fermented and dried, the cacao is not much better than the bulk cocoa that is sold by container load on the commodities market. Fermentation and drying is a long and arduous process for the farmer.

According to Moisés, there are two important harvests: the main one begins in October and ends in March. The second runs between July and September. An average farmer would own four hectares which would produce four sacks of fine cacao per hectare. For sure, money is not the main driver as each sack is bought by the cacao exporters for US$ 140. What Moisés explains is that growing cacao is a culture inherited by the farmers’ ancestors.

“Nowadays, younger generations tend to keep away from the cacao harvest. They have seen their grandfathers, fathers growing up in poverty and they do not want to end up like them”, he continues.

It is concerning to see many older farmers at the plantations talk about the business. Clearly, they are worried. According to Conservación y Desarrollo the average farmer is 44 years old. Interesting to note that the average age of a farmer in Ghana is about 67 – higher than the average life-expectancy of 60.

In the best of scenarios, farmers are beginning to receive better education and either becoming agronomists or working in white collar jobs in the cities. Often they migrate to do construction work in nearby urban areas.

The transformation into chocolate

As I look for the most appealing chocolate bar at the chocolatier, I wonder how long it takes to make a fine chocolate bar. I am aware that for decades, fine cacao from South America has been exported to European chocolate makers who gain the reputation for producing beautiful bars. But what is really behind all this?

Grenada Chocolate 71% - low roast gives a light burgundy sheen

According to the book “Cooking with chocolate“, edited by Frederic Bau of Ecole du Gran Chocolate Valrhona in 2011, there are five stages in transforming cacao into chocolate. This is how Valrhona make chocolate: ”

Stage one: Roasting. The seeds are roasted at temperatures ranging from 120C-150C for a duration of 15 to 40 minutes.

Stage two: Crushing. Under the weight of crushing hammers, the beans are freed of their shells and are reduced to minute particles of just a small fraction of an inch.

Stage three: Grinding. The beans enter a mill to be finely pulverized. What comes out is a rough powder that melts in the mouth, it is called cacao paste, cacao liqueur, or cacao mass.

Stage four: Refining. The raw chocolate paste is reduced to fined particles when ground by five to seven rollers spaced out at various intervals, and which work at various speeds.

Stage five: Conching. It improves the texture of chocolate, bringing out all its aromatic force. In a vat at a temperature of 80C, the machine churns and agitates the chocolate paste continuously for one to three days”.

“Chocolate making is deceivingly difficult and complex. Fundamentally, it is very simple to understand: The cacao is roasted, the shells are removed, the bits of beans are ground up with sugar until smooth and the final chocolate is conched – a heating and stirring process to adjust the flavour”, says Art Pollard, founder of Amano Chocolate.

But how long should you conch?

Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate

Some chocolate makers tend to keep their conching times a secret. Others strongly believe that it is not a mechanical process that takes 72 hours as if that were a ‘magic number’. It is as if top chefs such as Fergus Henderson, Ferran Adria or Heston Blumenthal were to say that the secret of a perfect roast is three hours in the oven.

“At Amano, we conch our chocolate until it is finished. We do not have a set time. It is all done to taste and that is my job. I get to taste each and every batch when it is in the conch machine at regular intervals and have to make the right decisions. In my experience, there is a 30 second window between under-conched chocolate and when the chocolate is perfectly conched. There is also a window when it becomes over-conched. When the chocolate has finished conching, it is determined entirely by taste”, declares Art.

Break it, smell it, enjoy it!

There is a saying- do not judge a book by its cover. In this case, do not chose a chocolate bar only by its packaging. Inquire about its journey, its origin, its process and its chocolate maker. Afterwards, just indulge yourself with a piece of it.

How do you taste chocolate? Break off a small piece, smell it, chew it a little bit and slowly let it melt in your mouth. Try to focus on the flavour. You can expect to discover an array of floral and fruity notes. There’s also a chance that you will be transported back in time to the very first day you ever tasted chocolate.

1 Comment

  1. Liz October 15, 2011

    Very interesting article. Every chocolate lover should read it.

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