Chocolate. If it is anywhere near me, I feel an irresistible pull; I indulge infrequently ONLY because we resist bringing it home. When Becky mentioned a tour of a cacao plantation while we were planning our Panama trip, we all quickly agreed to save a spot on our itinerary.
When we arrived in Bocas del Toro, our first stop (after breakfast) was the tour office, where we were disappointed to learn that the English speaking guide for the cacao plantation tour was sick. Since Pat and I are not sufficiently fluent in Spanish to follow a guided tour en Español, our deep disappointment registered on our faces.
After a little thought, the very helpful booking agent, Kelly, said perhaps she could arrange for us to tour the Cerutti’s cacao plantation – and with a few phone calls, she arranged a private tour of the plantation, a boat and guide, and our lunch. All we had to do was show up at the correct dock the next day, which we managed.
Tito, our boat captain, stowed our lunch, handed us each a life jacket, and away we went, flying over six-inch wavelets. Fifteen or twenty minutes of water travel brought us to the Bay of Dolphins, where we – and half a dozen other tour boats – watched dolphins frolic (or maybe they were eating lunch?) while cameras clicked and videos whirred. Ten or fifteen minutes later, we buzzed off across the bay once more and were soon tied up at the Cerutti’s palapa-covered dock.
Linda and David Cerutti came from the U.S to settle on their 30 acre plantation 15 years ago. Cacao trees were already growing there, and the Ceruttis landscaped several acres of gardens while David brought the plantation back into production. David grows low-yielding criollo trees, the most rare and expensive cacao (about 5% of all the cacao grown), native to Central America.
Our tour began with a walk through the gardens, then we continued on into the jungle where the cacao trees grow in the shade of the rain forest canopy. Along the way, David pointed out sights of the jungle – poison arrow frogs, the bat tree (where bats sheltered in a long cleft), odd fungi – while he educated us about how cacao grows.
Hiking in the rainforest, cacao pods in the foreground.
From this tiny blossom, a cacao pod grows.
Then the tour turned hands-on. David pulled a cacao pod from a tree and cut it open, revealing a juicy white pulp protecting the huge, pale, cacao seeds. We each sucked on a pulp-covered seed – and it was easy to see why the pod is prized for its extraordinary seeds instead of its mediocre fruit.
Cacao trees don’t have a “season” – they are in various stages of fruit production at any time. When enough pods have ripened to make processing cost-effective, David cuts open the pods, removes the flesh covered seeds,covers them with burlap in a large bin, and lets them ferment for 4-7 days. From the fermenting bin they move to the drying rack (where solar panels also provide the power to run David’s tiny processing operation), where they are stirred several time a day to discourage mold. Once dry, the seeds (now called beans) are cleaned, roasted and shelled.
Then the fun starts. The roughly chopped cacao beans are called nibs, and have the texture of a roasted almond with the flavor of mild, unsweetened chocolate. We all tasted nibs - and at the end of the tour, we each bought a few small bags of nibs to bring home with us.
Chocolate (sometimes called chocolate liquor) is produced when the nibs are finely ground into a warm (from the grinding process), runny paste. At this stage, David pours the unsweetened chocolate into molds which he refrigerates to harden. The result? Solid bars of rich, unsweetened chocolate (top photo), about 50% cocoa butter and 50% cacao solids. They reminded me of heavy gold bullion and, indeed, cacao beans and unsweetened chocolate were used by Maya and Aztecs as currency and as food for the aristocracy.
Cacao beans fermenting in their pulp.
Beans dried, cleaned and roasted.
David’s is not a large commercial operation, and it was interesting to see the machinery he has invented to decrease his production time. Through trial and error, he’s crafted his roaster from a discarded propane tank and a gas burner; a shop vac, a bleach bottle, and a 5 gallon plastic pail figure prominently in post-roasting production. An old refrigerator cools David’s chocolate filled molds, made from PVC pipe sliced in half. It was an interesting, inventive operation – absolutely nothing commercial about it!
Chocolate “nibs”, the first grind.
Our boat captain, Tito, admired the beans.
The finished bars of unsweetened chocolate are the end of the production line for Cerutti chocolate, which is then sold to chocolate manufacturers in bar form. Most manufacturers remove a percentage of the cocoa butter to sell to cosmetic companies (to recoup some of the cost of chocolate manufacturing), replacing it with lecithin, a soy product. Add sugar and you have a dark chocolate bar; add sugar and milk and you have a milk chocolate bar (vanilla is often added, too); add flavorings, nuts and fruit… you’ve seen the results on the shelf at Trader Joes. :)
Chocolate liquor cooling in molds.
David Cerutti and his chocolate bars.
Recently, I’ve noticed the introduction of “boutique” chocolate: bars labeled with specific areas of origin and percentages of cacao solids. Now that I can picture the Cerruti’s small, very local operation, I have a much better understanding of how terrior and variety defines chocolate, in a way similar to wine. Hmmmm… perhaps a chocolate tasting is in our future? Or at least another visit to Chocolate in Bisbee when we are in the area next week?