If there’s one thing in this world that can make me happy, it’s chocolate. I love all sorts of chocolate: white chocolate, sweet and bitter chocolate, salted chocolate, spicy chocolate and of course, dark chocolate. With that being said, you can only imagine how I felt when I found out AIFS was taking me and fellow exchange students on a tour to a chocolate factory. I was overwhelmed with excitement. This, I thought, must be how Charlie felt when he won a golden ticket.
The tour we went on was at La Reserva Tirimbina. Upon arriving, I was a little disappointed to find out there wasn’t a chocolate river and not an oompa loompa in sight. I knew I had my hopes set a little too high with those expectations (a girl can dream, can’t she?). Instead, I met Randall.
Randall had been growing cocoa beans and making chocolate since he was a wee boy and he was going to be our tour guide for the day. He jokingly told us that he believed chocolate should have its own food group in the food pyramid and that no nutritious meal was complete without at least one piece. After hearing this, I knew immediately Randall and I would be great pals.
From first-hand experience, I can officially say that the only thing that makes the heart grow fonder than receiving chocolate is being taught how to make your own. For this reason, I’d like to share the knowledge I learned at the chocolate factory. Please don’t feel obligated to thank me, but if all goes well, by all means send chocolate my way, and lots of it.
It all begins in the cacao field. Cacao trees produce buds year-round in Central America. Mature pods are chosen by hand so flower buds aren’t damaged. Truthfully, cacao beans look nothing like I had pictured. They’re bulky and slimy on the inside. We were taught that communities would take the pods and suck on the cacao beans, which are embedded in white pulp, for energy. As yucky as this might seem to, it is actually quite delicious. The pulp has a sour-sweet flavor that resembles sour-patch kids. After sucking on these, people would spit them out. Later, however, people realized that the seeds themselves were valuable.
After the seeds are sucked on, they are heaped in piles and covered so air can’t get to them. Fermentation then takes place and the beans are gently mixed for a total of seven days. During these days, the flavor of the beans begins to change from bitter to a more chocolatey taste. It is during the fermentation process that chocolate gets the rich flavor we all know and love.
Next, the beans are dried. This can be done in several ways. They are sometimes dried in the sun or next to a wood fire, a speedier choice. After this, the beans are shipped to manufacturers where they are cleaned, roasted, refined and mixed with sugars and other ingredients that each given manufactory decides upon, their own “secret recipe.” The seeds are then conched. Conching is the process of continuously kneading chocolate over a period of hours or days to attain a desired taste. Last but not least, the product is packaged and sold to consumers to be devoured within seconds of purchase.
Although I was a bit disillusioned because the factory didn’t resemble that of Willy’s, this weekend was a sweet (get it? Chocolate!) getaway. I’ll always remember Randall as the man who taught me one of the most important lessons in life: how to make chocolate.