Saturday, November 24, 2012

Making Chocolate: From Bean to Ball!

One of the big draws for me when deciding to work on the farm was that they grew chocolate.  The website mentioned the possibility of learning to process chocolate and that sold me.  As people who read my blog know, I love to get down to the nitty, gritty of food production.  That being one of the main reasons I started this blog.  The opportunity to learn about chocolate was one I couldn't pass up.

Almost as soon as I arrived at the farm, I took a tour of the cacao forest.  The pods start off as the tiniest and most delicate flowers that you can imagine.  The flowers to the right are about the size of my pinky fingernail.  I am a bit of a nut for tiny, cute things so I was quite entranced by the cacao flower.  Once fertilized the flower turns into a tiny purple pod, becoming a brilliant yellow or red once it grows and ripens.  The mature pods are about the size of a football.

Cacao trees grow quite tall but the cacao pods that contain the chocolate bean grow directly off the main trunks and branches so they are relatively easy to harvest.  

To harvest the pods I used a machete and chopped through the little stem attaching the pod to the tree.  As I did this I also looked for unhealthy or "malo" pods covered in a white fungus.  These pods were also cut off and thrown into central piles where they will be burnt in order to control the spread of the fungus.

The chocolate that Juan grows is called criollo and it makes up only 5% of the world's chocolate supply.  The flavour of criollo is less pronounced than the two other more common varieties but it has a more complex taste.  Chocolate connoisseur's generally consider it a superior chocolate.  It is much harder to grow and tends to suffer from fungal outbreaks more readily than the other types.  It takes a dedicated person to grow this variety and Juan uses organic methods no less.  Very inspiring.

Once the pods are harvested, they are sliced open and the seeds with their pulp are removed.  The pulp surrounding the chocolate seed is sweet and moist and delicious.  It makes a wonderful snack to just suck the pulp off the chocolate seeds and it is quite easy to eat an entire pod of pulp in one sitting.

As you open each pod, you have to check that the inside is pure white.  If the pulp is brown then the inside of the pod has rotted or is infected and the seeds must be thrown out.  The pods themselves are full of phosphorus and the empty ones are cast back onto the floor of the forest to add their nutrients back into the soil.  The fallen leaves of the cacao trees are also left on the ground to protect the soil from moisture loss.

Juan's farm is an integrated system so all of the parts work together.  The citrus trees grow among the cacao trees to offer shade and the rotten fruit and discarded peels also add nutrients back into the soil.  I am sure that it doesn't hurt the flavour of the cacao to have all those citrus essential oils permeating the earth.

Breaking open a seed at this point reveals a beautiful purple nut with an extremely bitter taste, nothing like chocolate.  It tastes raw and quite horrible.  In order to begin transforming the cacao seeds into chocolate, the seeds need to ferment for several days.
All of the pulp-covered seeds are collected and put into a wooden box, covered with banana leaves and left outside.  This is where the tropical air and micro-organism's begin to do their work.

As someone who has some experience with fermentation, I found it quite interesting to smell and watch the chocolate seeds as they fermented.  A clear chocolate liquor drips out of the beans and they begin to smell like cheese.  Almost like a soft blue cheese, not especially chocolate-like.

After a few days of this though, the smell begins to change and the scent of chocolate begins to tease at your nose when you smell the beans.

Once the beans are fermented they then need to dry in the sun.  In Canoa we had a few nice days with some sunlight and so the beans got a nice sun bath out in the yard.  Chasing the chickens off the beans was the farm work for a couple days as they seemed to find cacao beans quite tasty.  The color of the dried bean is still a vibrant purple and the chocolate smell is much more intense.

After the beans dry, they need to be roasted.  At Juan's place this means being roasted over an open fire for quite a long time.  This was my job and I anxiously baby sat and stirred my beans while they were roasting away.  The beans turn quite a dark color and once they are roasted the aroma of chocolate is compellingly clear.  But watch out!  The bean is still overwhelmingly bitter.  The smell will fool you into thinking otherwise.  

Once the beans are roasted the hulls need to be removed.  On the farm we did this by hand, gently pinching each bean until the hull cracked and fell off.  One by one each chocolate nut was revealed.

The next step was to turn the roasted seeds into a smooth chocolate paste.  There was a hand-cranked mill, much like my hand-cranked sausage maker with two metal plates rather than a grinder attachment.  The beans were fed in through the top and a paste oozed out the sides.  The paste was then fed through again to make the chocolate as smooth as possible.
Once the cacao beans had been milled twice, the paste was allowed to cool slightly and then was hand rolled into a chocolate ball.

This ball of chocolate is as pure as it gets.  Just a big hunk of freshly made chocolate.  Watch out though because it is still super bitter.

To eat, use a beautiful old grater and grate the freshly made chocolate bar finely.  Don't be stingy if you don't have to be.  Once the chocolate is grated, warm up fresh milk in a sauce pan and add the chocolate to it.  Allow the milk and chocolate to simmer until the chocolate is completely melted.  You could add some fresh canela if you like, though it might detract from the taste of the cacao.  Add sugar to taste.  Sugar changes the flavour of chocolate radically - it's like alchemy.

Enjoy your hot chocolate sitting around a kitchen table with friends.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment.


  1. Hello, I am doing a project about making chocolate in school, and I am wondering if it is possible to make normal chocolate with your method rather then to make hot chocolate out of it. I have tried putting the beans in a mixer, but it did not make a smooth enough paste, so then I tried to put it in my juice-maker as I saw a video that said it would work, but it did not make anything. I am in an IB school tenth grade and this is for my personal project and it would be really helpful if you could give me some tips. Thank you very much.

  2. If you read my post it mentions using a hand grinder with flat metal plates. If you don't have one of those I would recommend using a pestle and mortar to hand grind your beans - that might make it smooth enough. In chocolate making there is a process called conching. This involves melting the chocolate for extended periods of time and moving it through a stone mill (in essence). Think of Willy Wonka's chocolate waterfall!

    Different chocolatiers have different perspectives on conching. With the variety of bean that I was using, conching isn't recommended because it can soften the flavour too much. This might be an interesting issue to get into for your project.

    I also hope you're going to be discussing the political issues behind chocolate harvesting such as child labour and fair trade.

    Good luck!