Chocolate. The word conjures up a small piece of it, melting on the middle of your tongue and sticking to your fingers.
However, most people do not even know what a chocolate plant looks like, whether it is on the ground, bush or tree. In fact, it is a mixture of the last two — a beautifuly curving tree that produces large pods, teeming with fingertip size brown cacoa beans, surrounded by a sweet flesh (my favorite part — you pop one in your mouth and suck on it for quite a long time, until all the goodness has been taken by your tongue).
My foodie side pressed to find out about one of the most world renowned ingredients — cacoa. Here, in the sleepy mountains of Panama and throughout Central America, are the seeds that produce one of the most loved confections in the world — chocolate.
The Ngobe people have been growing the small trees since they were discovered. Used for medicinal purposes as well as consumption, they learned the magical way of turning the bitter seed into one that menopausal women throughout the world kill for through, of all things, fermentation.
The seeds are left to ‘ripen’ in a box covered with banana leaves — in conditions that would probably send off sirens in the Health Canada headquarters — for several weeks. But eventially, when they emit a sweet, heady, cocoa smell, they are ready to be dried.
Placed in a basic greenhouse structure, the bright Central American sun dries the beans until they are a medium to dark brown color.
Almost every plant that we saw had some use to the Ngobo. The fronds of this large one was separated in to strings and then woven to create the bags often seen slung over their shoulders.
These beans are the towns babies – they support the locals and in return, they care for the trees, walking among them every day to provide care. Cacoa has a long and important history in Central and South America. They were used as the main part of a ritualistic spicy drink that was drunk during a betrothal – even in ancient history, chocolate and love were associated. They also served as money throughout the continent – ten beans on average could buy a horse.
Spain gained the monopoly over the cacoa drink when it discovered (and slaughtered) the indiginous inhabitants of the wild foreign lands we now know as Central and South America, and maintained the secret of how it was made for over 100 years. Howver, eventually the French discovered it, and it spread across Europe, with ‘chocolate drink shops’ opening on many main thoroughfares across the Western World. However, due to the time and effort that it took to create the bean, and the distance it had to travel to arrive in Europe, the drink was mainly for the rich.
The love of cocoa throughout Western society came about at the same time as the Industrial revolution. While many beautiful and detailed acts were mechanized and science took the forefront before religion, the culinary delight of chocolate was able to be shared throughout all strata of sciety due to the ability of the engine to mechanize the grinding of the bean.
There are several hundreds of kinds of cocoa pods on the various farms — ranging from high quality to average. Each, though, has a delicious coating surrounding the seed (which I consumed as we walked).
After the fermentation and drying, the beans are placed in a small frying pan over a hot fire and shaken for about ten minutes. When they pop like popcorn, they are removed.
This popping sound is the thin skin on the beans opening, allowing it to be peeled off, technically known as ‘winnowing’.
While electric grinders are now used, traditionally the beans are placed on the middle of a big, flat rock, and ground with anoutehr rock. The one that is used on the farm has been there for 200 years, or more, and has the smooth indent to prove it.
Creamy chocolate is what Western chocolatiers strive for, however, the natives mix their ground cacoa beans, still oily and not completely smooth, with a little milk and sugar. The final product is a dark, rich, luxurious flavor that takes your breath away and is unlike any chocolate you have tasted before. Now, while the local Ngobo people enjoy what they deem ‘fudge’, they also send most of their organic beans to the far off land that they would never dream of going to (its unherad of, besides, its mucho frio) – Belgium.
One of the many creatures that benefits from the natural cocoa farm is the poison dart frog, hiding in the discarded husks that later become the nutritious compost for the trees.
After the tour, we were treated to the traditional fare of the area — stewed chicken, a fern-like bush that is used like spinach, and the steamed starchy yucca (also called cassava). All of which are harvested from the cocoa farm and surrounding areas.
Farming the cacoa beans, and infiltrating the organic and luctrative American market with them, has become the means of supporting the entire village while still retaining their ways — especially their fare.
The families, and children, are thoroughly proud when displaying their traditional dress, customs, and means of preparing food and other ways of life. To show honest and frank interest in everything they do is greeted with warmth and a wealth of information. We were treated to a lovely lunch that ended our tour, but not our interactions.
The bus stop must always be an array of color.
As the little boy I had been playing with chased me down the yard (and then I mock chased him), and people shouted their goodbyes, I realized that this was the best time I have had travelling yet. Not surfing, hiking, diving or snorkling, for no activity compares to genuine, human interaction.