The Chocolate Forest Experience in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica – A Tour with a View

Pod on tree puerto viejo crp

…It never ceases to amaze me when I find a cacao pod growing straight out of the trunk of a tree

A few years back, I went searching for chocolate in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica and found some enjoyable and informative tours that explored chocolate making, history and ecology.  Of course, they all had some form of chocolate sampling too.  Upon my most recent return to Costa Rica, I found that a small cafe and chocolate shop, Caribeans, had moved out of the center of Puerto Viejo and closer to Playa Cocles where they started running tours through their “chocolate forest” and factory.  I’ll do a review of Caribeans chocolate later, but for now, here’s what I found on a walk among the cacao trees above Puerto Viejo.

We started off the main road across from the beach.  It was a sunny, dry day that was not so hot as to distract us with thoughts of splashing in the waves.  The first part of the tour was a slow walk alongside heirloom cacao trees hidden among the jungle vegetation.  Most of their trees are Trinatario, a fine variety that’s resistant to the “black rot” fungus that devastated the Caribbean cacao industry during the last century.  They continue to work on restoration of trees through grafting of disease-resistant varieties in a process that takes more than five years.

Carribeans tour pod

Our expert tour guide, Jeff, offers a sample from a freshly-cut Costa Rican cacao pod

Our guide explained the biology of the trees and cacao history of the area while stopping frequently to answer questions.  There was a relaxed, informal, we-have-all-day-to do-this feeling that permeates life in Puerto Viejo.  At one stop, we opened a cacao pod and ate the raw bean surrounded by its mildly sweet citrus-like pulp.  It was nothing like the chocolate that we were about to taste at the top of the hill, but still something that you need to experience if you want to understand where chocolate comes from.

I’ll avoid too many spoilers here and leave a the rest for you to discover.  Let’s just say you will learn more about how cacao is harvested and turned into chocolate both during your hike and when you visit the chocolate “lab” where the bars are produced.

A Chocolate Tasting with a View

View over sea crop

Pull up a stool, breath in the view, and taste some chocolate!

What made this tour stand out was the arresting view from high in the jungle looking out to the coastline.  What an exceptional setting to taste single-origin Costa-Rican chocolate!  Our group sat comfortably in the shade on a deck perched above the trees.  The tasting begins with several single-origin and single-estate dark chocolates.  Everyone gets a healthy-sized slab to nibble, ponder and discuss.  Caribean’s is ethically sourcing cacao from around the area and many of their bars bear the names of the cacao farmers that produced the beans.

Carribeans chocolate tasting

Pairing chocolate with foods and seasonings

The tasting also includes a shot of drinking chocolate and an exploration of flavor pairings. We stepped up to an array of herbs, spices and seasonings and combined them with tiny squares of chocolate in a fascinating exploration of flavor synergy.   This was good fun and evoked more conversation among the group.  Chocolate plus sea salt?  Done that.  Chocolate plus coriander and chili pepper?  That’s interesting.  You can take it in a familiar or strange direction, but either way, it’s a sweet exploration.

 

Is the tour suitable for kids?

IMG_3460

Poison dart frogs greeted us on the path to chocolate

I brought my almost 7 year-old chocolate connoisseur on the tour which lasts about 2-3 hours. It was a bit long for him, but he was a real good sport and was motivated by anticipation of the chocolate tasting at the end despite the somewhat sophisticated slant.   He’s no stranger to single-origin dark chocolate so the rewards at the tasting were well received indeed.

Also, the jungle life found along the trail aided his excitement including red poison dart frogs and a tree with giant thorns menacingly protruding straight out of its trunk.  The hiking is not at all strenuos with many stops along a wide path winding up the hill.  Still, good shoes are recommended – not flip-flops.

You know your kids best, so you can judge.  I would say in general, 10 and up would be a more appropriate age, but if your kids are really into chocolate – dark chocolate – then younger kids may find it enjoyable.

IMG_3483

Kai spots cacao beans drying in the sun

The Best Chocolate Tour in Puerto Viejo?

Each of the five or so chocolate tours in the area has its own merits for sure.  The Chocolate Forest Experience rises to the the top of the list of those I’ve tried so far due to the quality of the chocolate, the picturesque, relaxed setting for the tasting and the convenient location.  Most people staying in the area could easily ride their bike there if not walk.  It also doesn’t hurt that all the people in the operation are super nice.  Other tours offer a make-your-own chocolate experience and yet another is given by local people, adding a sense of authenticity and direct connection with the culture.  If you have limited time, I would place the Chocolate Forest Experience high on your list.

With a slowly evolving chocolate tourism industry in greater Puerto Viejo, the area may just be shaping up to be a sort of Napa Valley of chocolate.  This is, in fact, the vision of Caribean’s owner, Paul Johnson, something I hope to write about soon.  Until then, The Chocolate Forest Experience tour runs five days a week: Mon., Tue., Thu., Fri., Sat.  For more information, visit their website.

Note: I paid for this tour myself and was given no consideration, monetary or otherwise for the review.

Antidote Raw 100% with Dates Dark Chocolate

Antidote 100 plus dates_cor1I normally taste chocolate for these reviews first thing in the morning before I eat anything, and this time was no different. I set up some space to taste while my pallet came back to life after a deep winter’s sleep.  One whiff of this darkest of chocolates and I was immediately awake and hungry.  I couldn’t help but to dive into the tasting curious to discover how the bits of dates would enhance the chocolate – would they provide sweetness or just an accent?

Unlike in my previous Antidote Chocolate review, this bar contains no sugar, so it’s in a completely different class of dark, nearly black chocolate bars with only a few peers to keep it company.  For that reason, I’ve decided not to give it a numerical score – it just doesn’t equate to most of the other chocolates I’ve reviewed so far.  People eat extreme dark bars for many reasons, but for most it’s about a sugar-free healthy experience loaded with antioxidants.

Antidote uses raw organic cacao beans from the Camino Verde farm in Ecuador to make a potent dark chocolate.

Tasting Notes and Review of Antidote Raw 100% Cacao with Dates

WHAT: Antidote Raw 100% Cacao with Bits of Delicate Dates. 65g (2.3 oz). Ingredients: Cacao beans*, dates, cocao butter*.  *Certified organic. 

Where to buy Antidote Chocolate.

WHEN: November 26, 2015   OVERALL RATING: n/a.

AROMA: Floral and tannic with citrus, green apple, black tea and banana.  You can’t escape the nose.  It will find you.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Grape skin, tannin, black tea.  Starts off slow and flat. You need to do some chewing to develop the range of flavors.

MIDDLE TASTE: Rose, malt, light ham, grape skin, cardamom, olive.

FINISH: Tannin gives way to almonds, walnuts, and more earthy notes like mushroom.  The finish is long lasting and less intense than the middle.

TEXTURE: On the crunchy end. Doesn’t melt on the tongue readily.

Antidote 100 warning crp

The warning on the back says it all. If you’re used to buying chocolate from the pharmacy, this might not be for you.  For the adventurous, *****

LAST BITE: What about the dates?  Don’t expect the dates to magically turn this bar into candy.  It’s not that kind of chocolate.  In fact, the dates don’t provide much of a sweetening effect – it’s more like a fruity note singing out from a small rowboat tossed about in a massive sea of cacao. Still, I’m glad they’re there.  My only advice for Antidote would be to chop the dates finer and add more of them so they are more like a chorus among the mighty waves of cacao.  There may be practical reasons why this is not possible, but it’s an idea worth considering. Or they may feel the bar simply rocks as is.

If you decide to try this bar, like many things in life, clarify your intentions first.  Do it because it’s satisfying, healthy, unique and fun.  I no longer felt hungry after a 3-4 squares (more than most people will ever need) and broke out from my usual somewhat sugared-up routine. Feels good.

NOTES:

[1] I paid for this bar myself (not a free sample).