Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 9: Chocolate Dreams

Destination: Puerto Jimenez

fermentation cratesTwo new friends from the hotel, Meg and Scott, accompanied me on a tour of Finca Kobo. Kobo means "dream" in the language of the Guayami, a group of indigenous people who still reside in small numbers on the Osa Peninsula.The farm is entirely committed to sustainable agriculture and -- more importantly -- to producing chocolate.

Owner Alex Retana Mena is one of the most bubbly, excitable people I have ever met. His eyes lit up with genuine enthusiasm when he spoke of sustainable farming, and his energy was completely contagious. Initially, I was pretty much oblivious to everything he said that didn't have to do with chocolate; but Alex was concerned with teaching us the ways of environmentally sensitive farming, and quickly succeeded in shifting my attention away from my sweet tooth.

pichichio medicinal plantThe farm was divided into four parts: primary forests, which have never been compromised by man; secondary forests, which have been previously cut down or lived in; regeneration areas, which have been cultivated in the past by other farmers; and biological corridors, safe havens for wild animals like monkeys, anteaters, sloths, and toucans.

As we walked through the farm, he demonstrated the useful properties of the plants around us. Have a sinus infection? Don't fret -- just boil some pichichio. Is it raining? Let's cut off an enormous palm frond and create an umbrella. Bored with regular water? Throw some lemon grass in your bottle to enjoy its flavorful healing properties.

leaf umbrellasAfter opening our eyes to the medicinal properties and practicality of plants, Alex informed us that Americans consume 33% of the chocolate in the world -- and we began to discuss the process of creating this perfect food.

Chocolate holds an important place in Costa Rican history. Hundreds of years ago, indigenous tribes used the rare cacao pods as currency. Because these trees thrive in tropical climates and require an immense shade that the rainforest can provide, Costa Rica was a logical country in which to cultivate the crop. Business thrived until about thirty years ago, when a white fungus plagued Central and South America, demolishing nearly all cacao and plummeting production rates from yielding 80% of the world's cocoa to a mere 20% - almost overnight.

cacao trees, green pods healthy and white pods sickDespite the fungus that is still evident all over the farm, Alex is able to produce small quantities of 100% organic chocolate. He took us to a cacao tree, which looked like a normal tree with several strange green sacs hanging off of it.

Opening one with his machete, we discovered a mass of beans held together by a purple-white sticky substance. The actual seed cannot be eaten in this form, but he showed us how to pop them in our mouths and sucked off the mushy part. I was hooked -- they were sweet with a slight acidic kick, resembling lychee fruits.

Open cacao podProcessing raw cacao into something usable is a somewhat tedious process. First, the pods are picked and cut open. Roughly 50-75 seeds are removed from each unit, and placed into large wooden boxes where they are left to ferment, preferably at 122 (degrees) F and 10% humidity, for at least five days.

By the fifth day, a type of chocolate alcohol has been created -- and the mixture smells positively rancid. The beans are then drained, roasted, peeled, and ground at least twice to yield a smooth powder. This powder is then be pressed into bars of pure cocoa, which can be used to make syrups, candies, and anything else edible.

Chocolate beansThe cocoa blocks are composed of 50% unsaturated fat in the form of cocoa butter (Cacao is the plant and pod; cocoa, spelled slightly differently, indicates the dried and fermented seeds from this plant). Junk food companies, like those that create chocolate for brand name candy bars, filter out this precious butter to create makeup, lotions, and other goods. They then replace it with filler substances like high fructose corn syrup, and other ingredients that consumers would rather not know about. Alex also had strong feelings in opposition of white chocolate, informing us that this sweet is a complete imposter that contains no cocoa: it is pure cocoa butter, sugar, and milk, and does not deserve to be called chocolate.

Finca Kobo feastAll of this talk of food was really getting our stomachs growling. After about two hours, we had made a loop around the property and were back where we had started. Waiting for us on a long table was a mouthwatering feast of fruit, homemade banana bread, chocolate syrup, and best of all -- rich chocolate cake. We sampled normal bananas, square bananas (which were sweeter), uncooked plantains, sweet starfruit, white pineapple, and watermelon picked right off the farm. After 20 minutes of stuffing our faces, we purchased some pure, unprocessed chocolate to go -- this is the only kind that Finca Kobo sells -- and returned to Iguana Lodge for a much needed nap.

Day 9: Chocolate Dreams in Pictures