My idea of heaven: walking amidst 100 acres of cacao trees, their delicate little white flowers turning into football-sized, purplish-red pods that cling to the trunk and branches. They don’t smell like chocolate but are bursting with the promise of what’s to come.
What a thrill to get a tour of the whole process: growing the seedlings, harvesting the pods, splitting them open with a machete to reveal 20 to 30 seeds covered in a creamy white pulp, fermenting the beans in wooden boxes (where they develop much of their flavor), spreading them out to dry before they’re packed into burlap sacks, then shipping them out to be roasted and turned into chocolate—food of the gods.
The highlight of touring a cacao plantation in Panama was tasting the pulp, an explosion of tropical fruit, each pod offering up its own unique flavor. I was also impressed by the effort required to create the highest quality cacao—planting trees that resist disease yet produce a flavorful bean, harvesting each pod at the right moment, and fermenting the beans just long enough to bring out the flavor but not so long that they sprout or become moldy.
Once they’re dried, a selection is cut in half to make sure the beans are the ideal size and color. Everything was done by hand, and the batches of beans that don’t pass muster get tossed. Truly a labor of love. (Click to see a brief video.)