I woke up this morning to a reliable alarm clock of singing jungle birds and told my wife that I’m going out jogging on the gravel roads around town. She quickly reminded me: “you hate running.” So,without any further thought or discussion, I discarded the idea and started to formulate a Plan B. Today I would save my energy for a swim at a tropical waterfall and a visit to the home of an indigenous family making a rustic, traditional chocolate in small batches.
The Tsitu Ue Cocoa House sits just 15-20 minutes north of Puerto Viejo in the village of Hone Creek. One of the family members showed us their lone cacao tree, explained about some other native plant materials and brought us through an explanation of how chocolate is made according to old traditions in this coastal Costa Rican region. After a visit to the cacao tree, we stepped inside for a demonstration of chocolate making including a smattering of indigenous culture and history.
They didn’t actually make a batch of chocolate while we were there (at least not for our small group), but they did show us the materials and demonstrated some of the steps. Unlike some other tours, they cut open a cacao pod and let us have a bean covered with sweet white pulp – a familiar but rare experience for me – tasting a citrus-sweet pulp surrounding a bitter raw bean.
The demonstration provided an interesting perspective on the simplicity of the old, traditional ways vs. the new ways of chocolate making aided by machines. For example, a modern winnower is a machine that occupies at least half a room and is designed to blow the husk off the beans while breaking it up into bits. To achieve the same result, our guide placed the roasted beans inside a small burlap sack and smartly whacked them with a stick to break them up and loosen the husks. Then she put them on a carved wooden tray and tossed them in the air while pulling the tray away so that the lighter husks floated to the dirt floor while the heavier nibs (bits of bean) fell back to the tray. I wouldn’t want to make 100 kilos of chocolate this way, but the simplicity of the old method was beautiful to see.
After the chocolate-making demo, we tasted some samples. The family might be getting a little bored of all this after a few decades because they seemed to be venturing into increasingly “creative” flavor combinations from chocolate mixed with ginger to nutmeg, cardamom, coffee, Cos, and others I can’t remember. Most of the flavors were quite nice, so we bought a small assortment along with some cocoa butter and roasted beans. When I got back to the house, I decide to try the “pure” unflavored version so I could get a feel for the base chocolate. First, you have to get beyond the coarse, unrefined texture because that’s what traditional chocolate is all about – I have no problems with that. Putting that aside, this “pure” chocolate turned out to be sugar-free. Although their sample in the “store” was pleasant enough, the stuff I bought was harsh, bitter almost inedible. The aroma was of strong burnt coffee, nutmeg and roasted nuts. The cocoa butter was notably absent leaving a dry, astringent bitter old nugget that ends in acrid wood. Sorry guys; this stuff was either old or not what I tasted at the Cocoa House. The other flavors that I bought, especially coffee, were fine.
Still, it was all about the experience of learning more about chocolate and that much was completely satisfying and something that I would recommend without hesitation.