On our last day in Arenal we were scheduled for the Rain Forest Chocolate Tour. On the grounds of this place they have, of course, many cocoa trees. They also have a variety of other plants as well. For example:
This is a vanilla plant, which is really an orchid. The only edible orchid there is. But, we wanted to get to the main topic, which didn’t take long:
This is a cocoa tree. And, as you can see, a German couple joined us on the tour. Here is a close-up of the green cocoa pods:
These pods are part of an experimental hybrid designed to create special dark chocolate. Yummy! So, here are some typical ripe pods:
When you open them up this is what you see:
This picture is actually from our previous chocolate tour, but it illustrates the point. Cocoa beans are arranged in layers inside the pods and are surrounded by a gooey coating. Here is one bean fresh from the pod:
We were each given one and invited to put them in our mouths to savor the coating, but NOT bite down on the bean. Well, the coating is kind of sweet, kind of sour. It’s not disagreeable, but no one stood in line for more.
So, the way cocoa is processed is, the pods and goo are emptied into a container and the goo is allowed to ferment over a period of a few weeks. I should also add that this process attracts a great many bugs, just so you know.
The processing begins by finding a tourist dumb enough to do the heavy lifting:
After the tourist passes out from exhaustion, you end with with a combination of cocoa and chaff. Chaff is removed in the same age-old method of our wheat-growing ancestors, wind:
Good job, tourist!!! But, as you can see, in spite of his Herculean strength, he could only smash this stuff to a coarse grind. Now it is time for a finer grind, assuming you can find another tourist gullible enough to roll a heavy stone:
You will notice a cream-colored substance layered on top of the chocolate. That, my friends, is raw sugar. If you’ve ever bitten into a square of baker’s chocolate you have some idea of how bitter pure cocoa can be. YECCCH! The sugar works wonders!
Now it is time to mill the two together. Let’s see if we can find someone to do the work of ten lesser men:
Here is the finished product:
Now the magic begins!
If you look past the right hand of this satisfied customer you will see a line of jars. They were filled with everything from mint to orange extract to cinnamon and many other delights. We had many a refill and each time could choose the combination of additives we desired. Want to know what the best, and most popular one was? It should not come as a surprise: salt. Whatever flavor you choose, salt makes it better. Guess that explains a few things, sadly.
Cocoa had long been a principle export of Costa Rica. But, in the 1970’s 80% of the crop was destroyed by a fungus called monilia. The entire industry was devastated. But, with research and planning and the introduction of fungus-resistant strains, cocoa is making a huge comeback. Costa Rica is now one of only 9 countries in the world that produce the quality of cocoa needed to make dark chocolate. We were more than happy to be there for the revival.