Category Archives: Single Origins

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.

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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.

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Omnom Papua New Guinea 70% Dark Chocolate

Omnom Papua New Guinea

Single-origin organic dark chocolate made in Iceland

Holy crap.  This is the most ridiculously funky chocolate I have ever tasted.  Picture this: you’ve pitched an army-surplus canvas tent and then you break open several hundred cigarettes and spread the tobacco over the ground inside the tent.  Zipper the tent closed.  Now lie down on the bed of tobacco.  Breath in deep.  Got that aroma?  Now you’re starting to understand the experience of this dark chocolate.

Before I go any further, let’s back up a bit.  Omnom is a relatively new chocolate brand from Iceland. They’re possibly the only bean-to-bar maker in Iceland.  Omnom is using organic beans from a handful of tropical origins – some as single-origin bars and some apparently as blends.  They’re distinguishing themselves with eye-catching package artwork and unique flavor profiles.

WHAT: Omnom Papua New Guinea 70% Cacao. 60 g (2.1 oz). Ingredients: Organic cacao beans, raw cane sugar, cocoa butter.

Where to buy Omnom Papua New Guinea.

WHEN: November 30, 2014

OVERALL RATING: 82.

AROMA:  Potent tobacco, canvas, burnt grass, smoke, leather.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS: Not just tobacco, but cigar wrapper leaf and smoke.

MIDDLE TASTE: Now the fruit appears from behind a curtain of smoke: banana, prune, kiwi, melon and molasses.

FINISH: Kiwi moves into citrus, walnuts then turns earthy and a bit astringent.

TEXTURE: These are thick bars with a little chew to them. Smooth, but not creamy.

Omnom Papua New Guinea Open bar

Wow – this bar has an over the top smoky tobacco and leather aroma that will knock you over.

LAST BITE:  I won’t pretend. There’s no doubt some of you will hate this bar. Those of you with open minds should really try it. Look, stop thinking of chocolate making as striving to a singular point of perfection. How interesting would it be if everyone on the planet looked more or less the same? Not very. Just like diversity in people makes life interesting, so it goes with food – even chocolate.

This is to chocolate what uni is to sushi.  If you’re a sushi neophyte, you don’t start with uni and it’s green-grey formless meat and pungent marine flavors.  Perhaps you start with California roll or maguro and then build your way up to the pleasure of uni, if you ever get there.

Still, all the masculine notes of tobacco, leather and smoke in the Omnom Papua New Guinea dark chocolate are really over the top. I really don’t know if this is intentional or by accident. For instance if the farmers in Papua New Guinea are drying the cacao beans under the heat of a fire of some rather than on terraces under the sun, that would explain a lot. On the other hand, if this is a true expression of the terroir of the bean, that’s real cool. If it can be controlled, I say back off a bit, but don’t try to make it taste like some bland and overworked “drugstore chocolate.” That would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Keep the funkiness and stay true to the bean.

Sure, this stuff is not for everyone.  But, if you’re the type that shuns what everyone else is eating, especially tired, bland Swiss chocolate and want a unique experience, eat this bar and laugh.  I did.

Notes:

[1] The chocolate was provided to me for free by the distributor not knowing what I would do with it.