Cacao is Spanish for cocoa. It grows on a tree, which bears a fruit containing seeds that look similar to coffee beans. That’s where chocolate comes from.
The farming and use of cacao has a long history in Costa Rica. The valued beans were once used as currency. It was a major Costa Rican export, until surpassed by the introduction of coffee in the late 1700’s. Still cocoa beans remained an important export until the early 1980s. At that time, a blight spread throughout the Caribbean coast, killing most of the cacao trees. It is rumored that the blight was actually conceived and perpetuated by the United Fruit company in response to the locals who refused to sell their land. United Fruit wanted the land in order to grow bananas.
The family I rented from, for two years, here in Costa Rica, had first hand experience with this situation. It’s sixty year old patriarch told me that his ancestors came to Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast from Jamaica, in 1872 to work on the railroad and later on, settled to farm cacao. His grandmother had a huge and prosperous cacao farm on the property. This family, like many of the original settlers, lost their means of living when the blight hit the cacao trees. It was devastating for most all the local people. The pretty white seed pods of the cacao tree, shriveled to black – deformed and useless. The once lucrative crop was gone, along with the main income source of the area. My landlord’s family property has since been divided up between the children and grandchildren, which helped to provide a home and a living for them all. Creative use of their land helped save many of these hard working people.
Cacao can still be seen almost everywhere you walk in the Caribbean coastal jungle. Healthy trees are intermingled with sick, damaged ones. Still, today cacao farming is experiencing a revival. Chocolate is made locally from the beans of the cacao. You can find a number of “chocolate tours” in the Puerto Viejo area. I like the ones run by the Indigenous, who have made and used chocolate, traditionally, for many years. Here is a look at how they make chocolate in the little Cacao House, on the way to Bri Bri.
The cacao house is run by a Bri Bri (Indigenous) family. The parents speak only Spanish and the native Bri Bri language but when I go there, their daughter, Priscilla, gives the demonstration. This sweet and intelligent girl is a fine example of one who has knowledge and respect for her traditional culture yet has an understanding of the modern world. Her English is excellent.
First the fruit is cut to expose the beans, inside.
The beans are dried in the sun and then roasted over the fire. It was fun to watch Priscilla toss the bean to separate the inner seed from its shell.
Next the beans are ground, the cocoa butter is separated, using a cooking process, and the chocolate is ready to use.
Along the way, Priscilla tells of Bri Bri traditions, using chocolate. Did you know palm leaves can be used for drinking cups? Just heat over an open flame and the leaf becomes strong and flexible, like plastic. Then it can be folded and formed into a cup.
Now for the best part – tasting the samples! There is home made chocolate with locally grown ginger, nutmeg or coffee mixed in. There is dark chocolate, milk chocolate and chocolate with chili pepper. You can try them all, pick your favorite and take some home for your friends. Well, that last part may be a bit more difficult. Most people can’t help but eat it themselves before they get back from their vacation!
Here’s the newest, sweet little product from the Cacao House!