Tag Archives: Fair-trade chocolate

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.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups vs. Theo Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

Theo Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups vs. Reese's

Can Theo’s new dark chocolate peanut butter cups (top) rival the sentimental favorite of millions?

Each year when my kids come home with their Halloween bags full of goodies, I coerce them into letting me sample two things:  Almond Joy bars and Reese’s peanut butter cups.   Yes, even as a chocolate connoisseur, I occasionally eat common everyday candy.  It’s becoming less and less every year, but there’s something compelling me, perhaps some nostalgia, to reach into the bag with a bit of reluctance and pull out a big hunk of sugar like a smoker who’s quit but occasionally indulges in just one cigarette.

But not all candy has to be junk, does it?  When I learned that the fair trade organic chocolate maker from Seattle, Theo Chocolate, just put out a new peanut butter cup, I had to give it a fair review vs. the old standby:  Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups by Hershey’s.  Theo actually makes two types – a milk chocolate and a dark chocolate.  I went for the healthier and I hope tastier dark chocolate option.

Reese's and Theo peanut butter cups

The familiar round Reese’s cups (left) use milk chocolate while the heart-shaped Theo cups use dark chocolate.

Where to buy:  Reese’s – just about anywhere. I bought a two-pack at a local old-school convenience store for $1.30 only to find them completely melted.  To give Hershey’s a fair shake, I had to start with something in good condition, so I found another pack at the big-box hardware store for $1.20 bringing my total effective cost to $2.50. Ingredients: milk chocolate (sugar, cocoa butter, chocolate, milk solids, non-fat milk, milk fat, lactose, soy lecithin, PGPR (emulsifier), peanuts, sugar, dextrose, salt, TBHQ (preservative).

Where to buy: Theo – available online at NewLeaf Chocolates for $2.49.  Ingredients:  Cocoa Beans, Cane Sugar, Peanut Butter (Roasted Peanuts), Cocoa Butter, Powdered Sugar (Cane Sugar, Cornstarch), Peanut Flour, Salt, Rosemary Extract (Vegetable Oil, Rosemary Extract), Ground Vanilla Bean.

Aroma:  Reese’s – all peanut butter. I tried several times to find some scent of chocolate and the closest I could come to is milk.  If you don’t believe me, try it yourself.  First smell a real dark chocolate bar and then the peanut butter cups.

Aroma:  Theo – first chocolate and then something nutty.

Taste:  Reese’s – It’s a big sugar rush.  The taste is dominated by sugar and peanuts up front.  Real chocolate flavor was hard to find.  All my life could I have been enjoying only the perception of chocolate?

Taste:  Theo – once you bite into it, it’s all peanuts just like Reese’s, but much less sweet.  A moment later, the real chocolate flavor appears with a very short-lived hint of fruit.  It was an unexpectedly less intense experience than Reese’s mainly because with Reese’s the sugar is overwhelming.  With Theo, you enjoy the chocolate flavor more and can feel and taste it separately in your mouth.  The finish eventually goes back to all nuts.

Texture:  Reese’s – A grittiness perhaps from the nuts turns smooth after a while.

Texture:  Theo – There’s a good snap at the start.  You will want to let it melt on your tongue a bit before chewing to let the chocolate catch up to the peanut butter flavors.

Reese's and Theo's peanut butter cups cut open

The inside of the cups look similar, but the Reese’s (left) seems infinitely sweeter than Theo.

TBHQ + PGPR + YOU = ?

I know some of you are wondering about those suspiciously long abbreviations in the Reese’s ingredients list. Here’s what they mean.

TBHQ is tertiary butylhydroquinone, an antioxidant that is derived from petroleum[2].  It’s often used as a preservative on packaging and in some foods with the full blessing of the FDA as long as it’s below a certain concentration.  This is not the type of antioxidant you get from blueberries and green tea.  This is an industrial chemical used to slow the oxidation of fats and other stuff so they don’t taste rancid.

PGPR is polyglycerol polyricinoleate, an emulsifier used to reduce the viscosity of chocolate so that they can pump it around a big factory in pipes and quickly fill all corners the little paper cups that hold the chocolate[3]. It also makes it easier for the chocolate to melt into a formless heap if it sits on a sunny store shelf.

Look, I don’t think we should be afraid of every chemical that has a long name – there’s plenty of complex chemicals naturally produced by your own body after all.  But, I don’t see any need for PGPR or TBHQ in my chocolate.  To produce a peanut butter cup that sells for not much more than a dollar, I suppose you have to throw in a couple of chemicals.  That’s what you get for $1.30.

If you try to research the safety of these chemicals on the web, you’re bound to run into some pseudo science, so be careful.  If you want some better information, I’d start with the Wikipedia links at the bottom of this page. Or you might be the type to enjoy a good cigarette along with your peanut butter cups and not worry about the consequences.  If so, I won’t judge you… really [4].

Last Bite

Well, it looks like I’ve outgrown Reese’s peanut butter cups after all – gone along with a long list of bad habits that I look back upon with a certain degree of fondness including Frosted Mini Wheats, imitation bacon bits, and Coors Lite.  This one’s easy to shed though thanks to Theo. They’ve given me a genuine chocolate treat at an accessible price.  I know some of you are still not convinced.  In your mind, Reese’s are what peanut butter cups are supposed to taste like.  It’s always been that way and always will be.  OK, but just imagine if in your childhood there was only Theo!

Notes:

[1] I was given these for free when I bought a bunch of other stuff from Theo.  They had no idea what I might do with them.

[2] Read more about TBHQ on Wikipedia.

[3] Read more about PGPR on Wikipedia

[4] Didn’t we learn anything from Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier?”