Adventure of the week: Cacao!

It is not just the noise some birds here make, it is the name of the source substance of chocolate. Yumlers, people. Yumlers.

Here begins our chocolate tale. We took a taxi boat the other day to spend time with our friend, Jared, on his biodiverse permaculture conservationist fantasy-island exotic fruit farm on Bastimentos, and to process cacao beans by hand, electricity free, old-school style.

Cacao grows on trees as gourd-like pods. To get to the part with which you make chocolate, cut the gourd open, and pull out the seed pods. They are incased in a slimy white flesh that tastes like raspberry limeade. Nibble or suck the flesh off, if you want to eat the fleshy fruit part, then put the pods in a bucket covered with water. If you are not a fan of exotic deliciousness, then deny yourself the pleasure of nibbling the fruit flesh, and just scrape the whole inside of the cacao gourd into the bucket of water. Let it sit on the porch for a few days to open-air ferment. The fermentation process will remove the rest of the fruit flesh from the seeds as well as denature the seeds.

After the flesh is separated off the cacao seed pods/cacao beans, rinse the seeds well, then put them on a screen in the sun for a few days to dry well.

After some sun drying, you are left with little brownish red nut-like pod. This bean has a little skin on it, like the brown skin on peanuts or almonds. The inside flesh of the bean is, at this point, deep aubergine in color.

Put the beans in a pan on the stove, and toast them over a very very low flame. Just like a nice beef roast, low and slow wins the day. As they toast, the odor of the beans changes; it starts as a blend of sour fruity lemon odor mixed with bitter pungent dark smell, then as you toast them the aroma shifts to to a grassy bitter smell, then to a strong nutty dark chocolate smell. When the pods smell of chocolate, the toasting is done.

At this point, the flesh of the bean has been transformed by heat from purple to dark dark brown. Chocolately brown black might be an appropriate description. The inner pod is about the color of roasted coffee beans.

After toasting, the outer skin of the bean separates fairly easily off the inner flesh of the bean, almost like a roasted peanut. Peel the skin off all the pods. Throw the skin in the compost. Keep the precious, illustrious, miraculous pods.

Now, the pods, which look like little kidneys (not kidney beans or cartoon kidneys, but actual kidneys), are to be ground. They may look like kidneys, but they do not taste like kidneys. My guess is Hershey´s would not use cacao if it tasted like steak and kidney pie (or would they?).

We used the old school awesomeness of a hand grinder clamped to the edge of the work table. We get bad-ass points for that, no doubt. Into the mangler you load up the beans, a spoonful at a time, and crank them through once for a coarse grind. Who needs 24 Hour Fitness? I´ve got a hand grinder, dude.

In the film clips below, you can get an idea of how the grinding went. Ian had to hold down the edge of the table so we could get enough stability to really muscle the grinder.

After grinding once, you adjust the coarseness of the grind, and put cocao through again. Repeat about 5 more times. The interesting thing here, in addition to the muscular work out, and the perfect smell of chocolate wafting up from the mangler then drifting gently on the jungle breeze and mingling with the odor of wild hibiscus and ylang ylang flowers, is the heat friction of the grinder will make the oil in the cacao separate out from the solids. If things get too hot, and the oil melts out, it gums up the whole works. Once we got to the 3rd and 4th grinds, which were fairly fine, we had to turn the grinder crank very slowly to avoid turning everything into mucky thick goo. The first grind through the mangler is a bit of a bear, and then it gets a little harder for each successive grind.

We added cinnamon, hand ground from the bark of a canella tree growing about 20 yds from the farm´s kitchen; some cardomon, also from a tree on the farm; cane sugar blocks, from the local market; and some toasted salted nuts (for a bit of texture, gooeyness and flavor complexity), from a can of Planter´s mixed party nuts. FYI - the mixed party nuts were from Costco, not from the farm.

After all the grinding, we had a lovely bowl of ground cacao with a little extra flavor and sweetness added.

We called it a day, put the cacao in a tupperware, and caught the last taxi boat home before dark.

***As an aside, the taxi boats here do actually run after dark, but few have running lights. Boat drivers will use their cell phones as the light by which other boats should see them and steer clear of them. Seriously. What is up with that? As I am not totally stoked to die in a taxi boat collision after dark in Panama, Ian and I limit our boat riding to the daylight hours. Call me crazy, call me neurotic, call me paranoid, but I will not get on a taxi after dark here.***

After an evening of lovely sleep filled with dreams of chocolate, we were back in the kitchen (the final touches went down in our kitchen rather than the kitchen at the farm, hence the different stove and environs in the pics). We minced some ginger, also from Jared´s magical orgo-veggie wonderland, and let it infuse into coconut oil (low and slow, low and slow). In another pan, we slowly heated some minced ginger in honey and a little simple syrup until the syrup and honey had reduced and the ginger was plump and sugary.

After straining the ginger from the now ginger-infused coconut oil, we mixed the sugared ginger, the oil, and the ground cacao/cinnamon/nut powder. This was gently heated over a make-shift double boiler. It turned into black tarry aromatic goo.

We poured some of the oil into our chocolate molds (which happen to look mysteriously just like ice cube trays) in hopes of preventing future sticking, then packed in the tarry aromatic chocolate goo. The chocolate mold/ice cube tray was then nestled in the fridge between our sandia (watermellon) and our bottle of soy sauce.

After an afternoon nap, an outing to the beach, and some time spent on the balcony reading a book, we pulled the ice cube tray from the fridge, and pried out our chocolate.

It is a bit gooey, as we added too much oil. It is more like fudge than a hard, firm-set chocolate bar, but it is smooth, intensely dark and rich, has an incredible flavor, and has lovely little sugared ginger nubbin surprises hidden throughout.

I discovered, to my delight, our chocolate is the perfect consistency for smearing on my incisors and canines for gorgeous and flattering pictures my mom will be delighted to see posted on the internet. This is what I would look like if I never brushed my teeth and if my folks hadn´t invested so much in dentisrty and orthodontia for me as a child. Drink up that image, folks. It is GORGEOUS!!!

If you are interested in the history of chocolate and so forth, check out the Wikipedia page. It has some interesting factoids and tidbits for the curious.


  1. Look at that chocolate... oh, oh, oh... I think I just came. Oh wait, no I didn't, I almost did though.

  2. Holly bananas baby, is that JMO's chocolate Joy I smell on the breeze? Yummy-licious chocolate joy....ummm

  3. This looks phenomenal. Also, the agriculture you describe is amazing. Fresh cinnamon bark? WTF. Amazing.