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On the Cacao Trail

This is how chocolate starts out: cacao seeds enclosed in milky-white, gelatinous pulp, sweet and slightly tart, like a firm mango.  A thick husk protects the fruit, the whole mazorca weighing a good pound.

This is also the first cacao fruit I’ve ever tasted.  I’m thrilled to try the precursor of chocolate, which some friends have called an obsession (how else was I supposed to make it through the school day??)

I scoop a small handful of the baba (seeds and pulp, like in a pumpkin) into my hand, then pop a couple seeds into my mouth.  The smooth pulp is firmly stuck on the seeds, so I suck it off with my teeth and tongue.

Xiomara’s the one holding the mazorca.  She’s the daughter of a coffee farmer who also grows cacao, and she toured me around her family’s small plantation.  Though not the height of the harvest, since cacao trees produce year-round we find ripe mazorcas.

Her dad, Juan, is an innovator in his community—he’s the only member of his cooperative growing cacao, inspired by a workshop.  He tells me he likes cultivating cacao because there’s less of an investment of time and energy than with coffee.  Cacao is native to Central America, and produces its own compost in the form of decomposed husks, so there’s little input after the trees are established.  Juan says he gets a similar price per pound selling his raw cacao beans locally as selling coffee to the cooperative.

Black, decomposing husks and a fresh one on the forest floor

The process after he harvests is simple: he leaves the beans in a sack for three days to ferment.  Then he dries them in the sun, and brings them to the market in the city of Matagalpa (keeping some at home for pinol, the national drink of ground corn and cacao).

Xiomara points out the range of food in cultivation on their land: glossy green mango and lemon trees shade the cacao, pitahaya fruit cactus wraps around the trunks of avocado trees, yucca shoots burst from the soil in a shady corner.  When I ask her if she knew the term polyculture, she says no, but when I explain it’s the opposite of a monoculture, she quickly agrees her family’s farm was a good example.

Wasps enjoying the cacao

We meander a bit more through the plantation, arriving at the banks of a stream, broad-canopied ceiba trees towering overhead.  Here in the deeper shade, Juan is experimenting with coffee interplanted with cacao.  Black oropendulas with yellow-tipped tails fly above and smaller birds weave through the trees.  By now, I’m hooked, not just on the cacao, but on the incredible diversity of Juan’s land.  He’s hoping other cooperative members will try cacao, pooling their resources to improve harvests and quality, and earn a greater profit.

After visiting Juan’s farm, I stumble on a booth selling organic chocolates at a fair in Matagalpa.  The woman staffing it invites me to visit the cacao cooperative a couple hours away, and a few weeks later my friend (and agroforestry expert) Katie and I hop on a bus to check it out.

We get off just past the small town of Matiguás for the cooperative “La Campesina.”  Silverio, a tecnico who advises farmers on growing practices, shows us around the processing plant before going taking us out to visit a farm.

Since the cooperative exports to Ritter Sport, the German chocolate company, it has a lab for quality control.  We walk inside an open, hangar-like space with a cement floor to check out the drying process.  Cacao beans are spread out on a mesh rack as an assistant measures humidity and fermentation.

He puts the beans in a little metal box, each seed fitting into its own divot, then closes the box and drives a metal blade through, guillotining the cacao.  (That’s actually what it’s called, a guillotine!) When he opens it again, we can see each bean has tiny holes and rivulets in them, which means they were properly fermented.

They also have to control for humidity—over seven percent and it’s not acceptable for export.

Silverio raises a handful of raw beans to his nose and inhales deeply.  “It should just smell like cacao, with no other odors.”  We copy him, breathing in an earthy, sweet aroma.  The batch is good.

After the tour of the lab, we bus another 45 minutes to Armando’s farm, jumping off the bus and crossing the narrow highway to his small home.  A greenhouse and cacao nursery share the front yard with a corral full of cows.

Armando and one of his trees

Armando’s been growing cacao for over 10 years and working with the cooperative for six.  He said he’s seen a great increase in yields and the health of his crop since he joined the cooperative, learning more about managing the trees.

After checking out the nursery and meeting Armando’s dog, we set out for the cacao trees.  We walk down a rutted path through more cows and cross a narrow stream before climbing into prickly pastures, then through a fence into the plantation.  The difference is striking—from grasses to banana trees and then into the plantation, where temperature and light dip degrees in the deep shade of secondary forest.  Armando has mostly planted in spaces between mature trees, areas that were more densely forested before a hurricane swept through with high winds.

Katie, Silverio, and Armando entering the forest

Most of the cacao trees are around 15 feet high, with branches clustered at the top.  Armando points out the cacao pods growing along the trunks, saying, “At the height of the harvest, you can’t even see the trunk for the pods.”  Some bear purple-red husks, others yellow ones, as well as smaller green pods still developing.

Armando has become more savvy about the value of his crop since joining the cooperative and has plans to triple his acreage in planting.  He’s in his late-forties and divorced—when Silverio asks him if he’s dating anyone, he confesses he likes a younger woman.  “What would she want with me?” he asks.  Silverio is quick to respond, “Don’t sell yourself short—you’re sitting on a gold mine!”  Armando laughs and agrees, “The cacao is an investment I’ll have my whole life.”

In April, he makes regular rounds through the plantation to prune and monitor for disease.  But during the main harvest months of September-January things get busy.  After harvesting the baba in big sacks, Armando loads his “black gold” on the bus to Matiguás.  Farmers who live farther away bring theirs to one of a dozen centers, and from there it’s collected to bring to the main plant.

Silverio says they ferment the cacao for 48 hours in an enclosed container, then an additional 4 days, before spreading it out to dry it in the sun.  In all, it takes about two weeks to prepare the raw cacao for export.

Back on Armando’s farm, after the hot hike we sit in the shade on the cool forest floor, breaking open a mazorca to revive ourselves with fresh cacao fruit.  The forest vibrates with the sound of cicadas, and we gaze up into the canopy of an immense, gray-barked guanacaste tree.

I ask Armando about what animals he sees in his forest and he mentions wild pigs, some kind of wild cat, and birds.  “You should see it here in the morning.  With all the birds, it’s a joyful awakening.”

Given all the different tasks to manage—cows, pasture, the milpa where he grows corn and beans, and his home, I wonder what he likes best.  “I like it best working here,” he says, sweeping his arm out and meeting my eyes in a smile.

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