Updated August 31st, 2018.
Recently traveler Shakia Stewart dove into the world of chocolate to learn everything she could about the process from cocoa bean to bar.
She made sure to sample plenty, but also saved time to document the process for all of you curious chocolate loving backpackers out there…
A Brief History of Chocolate
The very first European to ever taste chocolate was the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes when Montezuma, the ruler of the Aztec empire, offered him a strange spiced and bitter drink.
Since the Europeans had rather a sweet tooth, they started to add sugar to this unusual and exotic mix. Demand for the sweetened version of this curious new food experience began to grow and grow in Europe.
Fast-forward 500 years and we are still as in love with chocolate as ever before!
Ecuador has historically been blessed with an abundance of cacao since pre-Columbian times and has recently been making headlines as the number one producer of top quality, fine cocoa beans in the world.
So imagine my delight as we set our bags down for the week at an organic chocolate farm, just outside of La Maná, Ecuador, ready to get our hands dirty and discover the secret behind Ecuador’s tastiest export…
Day one, armed with secateurs (pruning shears), we set off into the trees, trudging through the thick tropical undergrowth, cutting down the ripe cacao and heaping them into piles.
When the cacao is ripe, it turns from a purply green hue to an intense deep scarlet red with tinges of orange and yellow.
It was early morning and we were under the shade of the trees, but it was still sweaty going. The mosquitoes were having a feast as we worked our way across the land.
Following behind us was Eduardo (the owner of this incredible farm), who, armed with his machete, was yet to break a sweat. Rather more accustomed to the tropical climate he worked swiftly, swinging the machete down to the ground, piercing the shell of the cacao, and then bringing it up to his free hand.
With a few swipes, he deftly broke open the thick outer layer, revealing the juicy, white flesh surrounding the seeds inside. The insides were then dropped into a bucket, and as the morning progressed we filled three or four of them to the top.
This was this first stage in the fascinating process of making chocolate.
That’s me – holding open a fresh cacao – ready for roasting
Fermentation, Sun-Drying and Toasting the Cocoa Beans
Following the harvest, the seeds and flesh are left to ferment for around six days. After this fermentation process, they are left out in the sun for another six days to dry out. Once the skin is beginning to crack, the seeds are ready to be toasted.
Beans roasting in the open sun
Days later Eduardo built a roaring fire onto which he placed a large, wide and shallow pan. Into the pan went the fermented and sun-dried cacao beans, where they were toasted for 30 to 40 minutes until the skin would easily break off.
As he stirred the beans, being careful not to let them burn, I asked if he ever got bored of chocolate. Being surrounded by so much chocolate every day, surely it would start to loose its appeal?
He laughed and gave me a telling smile. Here was a man who had some of the finest hot chocolate going in Ecuador with breakfast every single morning to kick-start his day – how could he possibly get bored?!
Wafting over the waves of smoke as the beans were toasted was the first hint of the sumptuously delicious aroma of pure chocolate. At this point, my mouth began to water…
Eduardo gently roasting the beans making sure they don’t burn
Once the beans were toasted, they were left out to cool. When they were cool enough to handle, we placed them in a bag and lightly stamped on them to start to separate the unwanted skin from the pure cocoa beans.
The skin was then removed using an ingeniously simple technique. The beans were poured out of the bag into a tub from above whilst a fan blew across the beans as they dropped, blowing the lighter skin off the heavier beans.
We then sifted out any left over skin manually before it was time to grind the beans.
Here Comes the Chocolate…
And then the magic happened!
It was so wonderfully simple; into the grinder went the toasted, de-skinned cocoa beans, and out came a thick, deep brown, bitter cocoa paste that was then set to dry and harden overnight. Once dry and hardened, you can grate it into hot water or hot milk to make a delicious drink, adding sugar to taste.
Now that looks more like chocolate… delicious
To make sweet chocolate bars, we mixed sugar with the pure cocoa paste and passed it through the grinder once more to produce a wonderfully silky mixture to which we added caramelised orange peel and roasted peanuts.
We then added the mixture to plastic moulds and left them to set overnight. It was all we could do to stop ourselves from eating them before they were ready!
Amazingly the oranges and peanuts were were also picked from the farm. Aside from chocolate, the farm also produces and sells coffee, banana flour made from bananas left out to dry in the sun, and countless other fruits that are in such abundance they are literally dripping off the trees!
Mouth-Wateringly Delicious, Real, Organic Ecuadorian Chocolate
Alas, the one downside to this amazing experience is that bog standard chocolate from the corner shop will surely never again compare.
But hey, after witnessing the process of making of this amazing organic Ecuadorian chocolate from start to finish, and appreciating all the time and effort that goes into its production, I’ll be happy to fork out a few extra pennies next time I want some real chocolate!
If you’re interested in volunteering on a chocolate farm in Ecuador you can find opportunities online.
Written by: Shakia Stewart a traveler who simply can’t get enough of South America, she’s currently on month four of her fifth trip to the continent. To read about more of her travels, and see some incredible photography, check out her personal blog!