Category Archives: Talking with chocolate makers

Searching for Chocolate in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica: Day 5 – CARIBEANS

Caribeans Coffee, Chocolate and Ice Cream

Caribeans Coffee, Chocolate and Ice Cream

Update:  Caribeans has moved and reopened as a “Chocolate Tasting Lounge” in Playa Cocles just south of Puerto Viejo proper. I paid a short visit in February of 2015 and I’m pleased to report both the chocolate and the space have improved. Check it out.   I  try to do another review soon.   As the last day of our trip approached, the rain started and continued all night and into the day as if to prove beyond a doubt that we were in a real rain forest. This was our cue to find a decent coffee shop – one with an espresso machine but without the continuous party music of the popular reggae bar and grill, Tex Mex.   Caribeans is a little coffee and ice cream shop in town right near the water.  We were told it’s got the best coffee in Puerto Viejo, so with little time to spare, we went straight there.

Don’t expect air conditioning and all dangling blown-glass lights with well-coordinated furniture like Starbucks- if that’s what you need you should probably vacation in Miami instead[1].  Like so many places in Puerto Viejo, this is some kind of converted house or maybe fishshack and has taken on a sandy, organic character of its own.  You can enjoy your drink inside while surfing the web at one of the free internet computers, you can sit out in front and listen to the waves, or you can park yourself at a couple of small tables by the water and watch the surfers over at Playa Negro.

The place serves up a few of life’s basic necessities:  coffee, ice cream and chocolate.  Beyond that they also had baking bars, roasted cacao nibs, tee-shirts and other accessories.  The chocolate comes in an array of flavors including orange, cardamom and other experiments.   Since it was mid-afternoon, I decided to get something cold – an iced cappuccino and sit by the water while my son teased the waves.

But I had two missions this day – one to find some decent java and another to figure out where the chocolate in Puerto Viejo was really coming from.  Clearly the Cocoa House could only make enough for their on-site sales and a bit of rough stuff for exfoliating at the spas, while Cacao Trails couldn’t possibly grow enough cacao for all their tours and Echo Books, despite their fresh and refined results, was clearly not doing bean-to-bar in the back room.  Would the chocolate at Caribeans turn out to be identical to one of the others?  Where is the chocolate factory?

Caribeans owner

The author with beach head in full bloom talks with Caribeans owner, Kees.

To get a handle on this,  I caught up with the owner, Kees Hessels, an energetic and optimistic guy who gave me a quick tour of the place.  Kees is active in the community working on a mission to bring fairly traded goods from the indigenous people to a broader market.  Kees explained that they used to have a chocolate factory at the shop until recently when their refining machine failed in a blaze of exploding chocolate glory spewing chocolate all over the walls and ceiling. They’ve since moved the factory off site which is just as well since they have bigger equipment now and can make more chocolate [2].

Organic, Fair Trade Chocolate

It seems that the chocolate factory has eluded me once again, but the chocolate hasn’t.  With a plane to catch, there was no time for a full-on tasting, but I did take some notes on their Organic 80% Dark Chocolate bar.

 

Caribeans Bar

WHAT:  Caribeans Organic Fair Trade Dark Chocolate. 80% Cacao. 25g.  Ingredients: cacao organico y azucar. Where to buy:  Fly to Costa Rica and drive 4-5 hours south from San Jose to Puerto Viejo.  Take the first left over the bridge into town.   Say hi to Kees when you get there.

WHEN:  March 1, 2011

AROMA:  Oh yeah. I’m going to call this the Talamanca aroma from now on – roasted ham, leather, coffee and  tobacco out the wahzoo .  This appears to be characteristic of cacao from this region and is perhaps the best thing about it.  The scent of the stuff now brings back wonderful memories of Costa Rica.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS:  Earthy, peat, coffee.

MIDDLE TASTE:  Peat turns into cappuccino.

FINISH:  The fruit arrives early in the finish in the form of slight melon and banana.  The very end is black tea.

TEXTURE:  A bit of a crunch which is typical of the chocolate making style of this area.  You can think of it as more of a minimally processed approach or a traditional Caribbean style. Either way, if done well, you get more of the fruitiness and raw tartness of the original bean.

After tasting this chocolate, I don’t think this bar has anything  to do with any of the others – at least the factory is not the same.  As for the beans, some may be grown just a couple of miles away at Global Creek, a place where you can go for Ecological Tours, but everyone also points to the inland mountains as the source of most beans.   That makes sense since the coastal plantations were devastated by fungus a few decades ago – a tragedy whose effects are only slowly waning.

I could go for a little more sugar and vanilla in this chocolate bar, but it would also work well with coffee as is.  Yes – I’m seeing now –  like a pure chocolate biscotti.  The cardamom bar should work especially well.  Now I have a reason to go back to Caribeans and get a good hot cappuccino to enjoy next to a cardamom dark chocolate bar while sitting out by the waves.  Maybe another trip is just what’s in order to unravel the mystery of where the cacao is coming from, how the chocolate is made … and why.

If you want to try Costa Rician chocolate, but can’t get to Puerto Viejo any time soon, try Theo’s Single-Origin Costa Rica bar.

[1] I have nothing against Miami – been there, done that, but it’s miles away from Puerto Viejo, physically and culturally.  One is polished, highly developed and chic (with a bit of a dark underbelly) and another authentic, raw, real and grasping, we hope successfully, onto its roots for dear life against a steady gentle breeze of change.

[2] The shop and the factory are separately owned and operated, but work closely together.

[3] I did the tasting for review before I left Costa Rica.
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Xocodiva Puerto Vallarta

Xocodiva Artisan Chocolates, Puerto Vallarta

During our recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, I had the pleasure to visit a little chocolate shop in the Zona Romantica – Xocodiva (pronouced sho-ko diva) and also talk to chocolatier and co-owner Carol who had opened the shop a couple of years ago with her partner, Charlotte.  Carol and I chatted a bit while she busily rolled truffles by hand.  Right way it was clear that the “artisan” designation was not just hype – the truffles were made by hand and in small batches, so that was enough for me.

She confirmed that they are using Belgian couverture for their chocolates.  Of course, using Mexican-sourced chocolate would be impractical on many levels, not the least of which is that cacao production volume in Mexico is relatively low and mostly consumed to make a rustic style of chocolate used mainly for drinking.

The place is decorated with a clean, but romantic vibe.  There’s a front seating area separate from the main shop that has a long bench and some separate two-top tables, enough space overall for 6 to 8 people.  It looks like it would be a great place to stop by after dinner for a few luxurious treats.  In the shop itself there’s a wide selection of truffles and other small confections, nut brittles, bars, gift assortments and hot chocolate.  Overall I have to say I was very pleased.  Why should fine chocolate surprise me in this town when I had already experienced some wonderful culinary skills in the restaurants of Puerto Vallarta?

Hot Chocolate topped with cocoa-whipped creme and dusted with cocoa.

I decided to get a sampling of chocolate treats so I could get a feel for the overall skill of the chocolatier and quality of the shop.  I went for some hot chocolate, truffles and bars.  The hot chocolate was all warm and ready to go and didn’t feel at all out of place in a beach town despite the early sun’s efforts to warm the air into the 80s.  After all, people were drinking coffee and espresso all morning in the surrounding cafes as the chairs were being arranged on the beach and the sand was slowly drying from the high tide.  Surely I could break from tradition and go with some hot chocolate.

Had it not been the last day of our trip, I would have made this a daily habit – great stuff!  Thick, viscous and bold as serious drinking chocolate should be.  Not too sweet but with enough sugar to power my climb back to our room on the hilly cobblestone streets of the Zona Romantica.  I definitely recommend that you make their hot chocolate your new early morning or after dinner habit when you’re in the area.

Next came the bars.  No need for a formal rating here, since it would be hard  to buy these bars outside of Mexico.  But if you’re in PV and trying to decide whether a visit to Xocodiva is worth while, this should give you some idea.

 

The bars are molded with a cacao pod motif

Ek Chuah – Dark Chocolate (Chocolate Obscuro) – Named after the Mayan god of Merchants. 50g bar.  Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa powder and soya lecithin.

Aroma – Peanuts, peanut shells, neoprene

Initial / Mid taste – Green beans, almonds, a hint of strawberry in the middle, pancake

Finish – Honey, vanilla

Texture – A little crunchy.  Benefits from first holding it in your cheek to melt it a bit.

 

Xocodiva's Bars

Kukulkan – Dark Chocolate & Cacao Nibs (Chocolate Obscuro Y Granos de Cacao) – Named after the Mayan god of creation.  50g bar. Cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa powder, soya lecithin and organic cacao nibs.

Aroma -Honey, cedar, burlap, oak, hay

Initial / Mid taste – Green beans, almonds, peanut, vanilla, cinnamon, oak.

Finish – Nice long finish with caramel, roasted rice, rice crisp, peanut.

Texture – Light on the nibs, but still had a nice crunch.  I could go for more nibs myself.  It seemed that one end of the bar had more than the other.  On the other hand, the nibs were not overpowering, astringent and acidic as they can be if overdone.  They added a nice texture and extra notes of wood and nuts.

Overall, these bars were a little one-dimensional, but not flawed in any way.  Keep in mind, this is not bean-to-bar and doesn’t pretend to be.  They are good, solid bars and probably your best option in PV if you’re craving straight chocolate.   Ah, but then there are those truffles…

Back in our room, my wife and I sampled the truffles.  Here are our combinded impressions:

Tequila– We caught a distinct tequila flavor – not sharp, but definitely present and a nice fit for both the chocolate and our Mexican surroundings.  Combined with the sweetness of the truffle, the flavor was more reminiscent of a tequila liqueur than the biting yellowish liquid that I’ve learned to avoid, well… straight anyway.  I’ve always felt that dry spirts such as scotch are a better match with chocolate than, say, wine, so I wasn’t surprised to find this pairing with tequila to work well.  This one was my favorite.

 

Artisan truffles. Clockwise from the top: Nibs on Dark Chocolate, Cherry and Tequila

Cherry – We tasted little surprise bits of what appears to be Bing cherries mixed throughout the center.  I found the cherry flavor to be underwhelming at first (and these truffles were real fresh), but when I hit a bit of cherry, it all came into focus.  The contrasting texture of the smooth ganache, chewy cherry bits and the harder chocolate shell was a real delight.  This one was Genevieve’s favorite.

Dark Chocolate with Nibs on top –  We first experienced a beautiful, intense chocolate aroma followed by a nice texture in the mouth – the chewy, crunch of the nibs the smoothness of the chocolate below.  Just a hint of astringency and wood that you would expect from the nibs.  Genevieve gave a thumbs up to the complexity – notes of caramel and deep smoky cocoa but found the wood notes a little more dominant than I did.  Perhaps something like the space between aging hardwood split and stacked for the winter.

Speaking of winter, we are back home lamenting that it will be at least a year before we get back to Puerto Vallarta.  In the mean time, I’ll be dreaming of a daily cup of thick drinking chocolate with truffles.

Xocodiva – open 10am to 10pm daily in the romantic zone next to the San Marino Hotel on Rodolfo Gomez 118.  322-113-0352.