A couple months ago, something like the county fair came to town and I ended up spending a Friday night at a cacao cutting contest. Firstly, yes, it sounds super country, but how else is a girl in the middle of nowhere Peru supposed to jump start her weekend? Secondly, if you didn’t know, the cacao plant is where chocolate comes from and in Peru, cacao is grown in ten regions including my region of Amazonas.
So there I am, watching these machete wielding farmers show off their cacao cutting prowess and I just keep wondering about how something as strange and foreign as the cacao plant turns into something as familiar as a piece of chocolate. Lucky me, at the end of the contest, I ran into a counterpart (think coworker) of the volunteer who lives about 30 minutes away from me whose father runs a small chocolate producing operation. He told my site mate and I that any time we wanted to come up and learn how to the cacao plant turns into a chocolate bar that we had an open invitation. And you bet your behind that a few weeks later I went with my site mate and his parents (visiting from the States) to learn how the whole thing goes.
Here’s what I learned:
First things first, cacao is grown from a tree in pod and those pods can be green, yellow, or a reddish brown color. Second thing, I’m not gonna lie to ya’ll, cacao is a weird lookin’ plant. And once you crack those bad boys open, it gets even weirder because the seeds that you use in the chocolate making process are covered by this opaque gelatinous mucus membrane – like how I would imagine alien eggs to look. However, this membrane is edible and many people often suck the outside of the cacao seed because it has a tangy and sour taste.
After all the strange mucus membrane stuff is removed, I learned you have to let the small brown seeds dry out in the sun. I’ve seen that part of the process a million times before because all over my province, people lay out huge tarps on the street or sidewalk to let their cacao dry. Our guy was fancy and had a special drying rack for them. He explained that laying it in the street ruins the taste and the smell of the cacao, hence ruining the quality. The entire drying process takes about 2 weeks.
Next comes the roasting. After the long two week wait, you have to take your batch of cacao seeds and slowly roast them. Don’t ask me for how long though. I asked our guy and he basically told us that he “just knows” when they’re done. But all the while you could tell how much TLC he puts into making sure he has a quality product. Every time he talked about his cacao he was beaming with pride and was clearly happy with all of our interest in what he does.
When everything is all roasted and toasted, we took the seeds and we put them on this huge rack with mesh lining. He instructed us to rub the seeds against the mesh lining to get the skin off of them. So that’s exactly what we did for about ten minutes. Bits and pieces of skin would fall to the bottom on a cloth and we would put the skinned seed in a separate bowl.
Okay, remember I said that bits an pieces of skin would fall down onto a cloth? Well, sometimes bits and pieces of the actual cacao seed get stuck in there too and you can’t just let quality product go to waste like that, right? So our guy figured out a way to recover those bits and pieces of seemingly lost cacao. He takes the leftover bits on the cloth and puts them in a bowl. He goes over to a set up outside where there is a chair with another bowl on top of it next to a fan. And while the fan is going he pours the left over bits into the other bowl. The air from the fan blows away the very lightweight pieces of skin and the heavier chocolate seed bits fall right into the other bowl. Genius.
From here it was pretty simple. They combined all the chocolate seeds and put them into one large machine that grinds them down into paste. However, before they purchased that machine and were grinding by hand, their production rate was (if I recall correctly) 1 kilo in one day. Now, they can basically grind as much as they want as long as they have the seeds to do it.
After everything is grinded into a paste, they package it in little square bags where its refrigerated until solid. Here in Peru, a lot of chocolate is sold in unsweetened bars. Most people buy these unsweetened bars and make their own hot chocolate. So this chocolate factory (I know “factory” is a strong word but, whatever) only really produces unsweetened chocolate bars. But because they know we came there with a sweet tooth, they gave us a cup full of the chocolate paste mixed with sugar. And let me tell you guys, that was hands down the best chocolate product I have ever tasted. So rich and so flavorful!Honestly, I don’t think a description will do it justice but it just tasted so… real. I had seriously been living in chocolate ignorance for 26 years. It was kind of like the realization I had when I ate authentic Chinese food for the first time after eating from hole in the wall Chinese take out joints my entire life. I have seen the light and I’m never going back…
Sike, just playin. I’m destroying the first bag of Peanut M&M’s I see but you get the point.
Anyway, we ended our day there with a rice and potato filled lunch made by his wife and we thanked them for all the hospitality that they showed us. We left, of course, with an open invite back and content with knowing that we just had one of the best days ever.