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Ancient Costa Rican Chocolate Secrets

Ancient Costa Rican Chocolate Secrets

Ancient Costa Rican Chocolate Secrets

Destination: Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui

A little less than an hour outside of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui there's a sign that looks more like an offer for a roadside attraction than a wildlife reserve. A hundred yards past the sign there's a small unassuming parking lot and a friendly security guard. From this façade, it's difficult to imagine what exists behind; a world of pristine forest, damp trails and a hidden chocolate farm.

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Crossing from the asphalt to a moss-dusted path, the noise of passing cars fades into the sound of the forest welcoming visitors to the Tirimbina Biological reserve's 850 acres of tropical rainforest.

Deep inside the reserve, over Costa Rica's longest suspension bridge (870 feet), around the side of a mountain and through a valley visitors will find Tirimbina's chocolate farm. There aren't any fields though, there aren't even any rows, instead the cocoa trees are scattered in a clearing; a re-creation of a Native Costa Rican chocolate farm. The underbrush has been cleared away, but the tall rainforest foliage remains to shade the cocoa trees—because more shade means better chocolate.

First discovered by tribes native to South America, the cocoa tree soon migrated north with rumors that it grew the fruit of the Gods. Natives would suck on the sweet, white pulpy lining of the cocoa beans, but spit out the beans themselves because they were too bitter to eat.

Tirimbina's chocolate experts said the Olmecs were the first to use the cocoa bean for its chocolaty goodness, fermenting, drying, roasting, shelling and grinding the beans to make a powder for a drink called Cacaowa (drink of the Gods). The guides described the history while showing us the native tools for processing the cocoa beans and making the sacred drink.

With each step, we had a taste. First, we sucked on the sweet, milky lining of the bean. Later, we tried the roasted cocoa bean—only this time it started tasting like chocolate. It had a delicious dark chocolate flavor, but was still very bitter.

In fact, it wasn't until the cocoa drink was adapted by the Spanish, that it became sweet. Spanish nuns are said to have been the first to add sugar and cinnamon to the drink and in doing so made it appealing to the rest of the world.

Our chocolate experts spared us the bitter flavor of the Olmec recipe by adding some brown sugar and cinnamon to the concoction before sharing it with us. Each guest was served a small clay cup of the chocolate drink and asked to add their own condiments: nutmeg, black pepper, cornstarch and chili peppers (Olmec style).  The chilies pack a punch, but also give the drink a layer of depth making it sweet, savory and spicy.

Though chocolate became popular in the western world thanks to the nuns, it wasn't until the industrial revolution  in the late 18th century that chocolate artisans concocted the candy bars we so often associate with the cocoa bean. With the advent of industrial power and the addition of a few ingredients (milk, vanilla, etc) chocolate was mixed and tempered into the cherished chocolaty squares we eat today.

So of course, the tour wasn't complete until we got to try the local organic dark and milk chocolate of Costa Rica. Made from the cocoa beans of a nearby organic farm that partners with Tirimbina, the chocolate's unique richness comes from the Latin American cocoa beans—the highest quality in the world.

Ancient Costa Rican Chocolate Secrets in Pictures

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