Cacao, the raw ingredient of chocolate, increasingly important cash crop in Peru.
Details of cacao plant, its history & use.
Description of chocolate-making process.
Where to see the plant & the process in Tarapoto.
It is probably unfair to be talking about cacao - and its delicious derivative, chocolate - in January, just as many of us have vowed to watch our calorie intake after the excesses of Christmas and New Year!
But in Peru, cacao farmers must work year-round to ensure the health of their trees, harvest the fruit by hand, and prepare for sale.
The cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) is an evergreen shrub, thought to have originated in high Amazon regions, such as on the eastern slopes of the Andes, which offered the right temperatures and humidity.
The tree produces ovoid fruits, known as ‘pods’, that when ripe are roughly the size of a coconut and weigh about 500g (1.1lbs). Each pod contains 20 to 60 seeds, or ‘beans’, covered in a white pulp. The beans are the main ingredient of chocolate; the pulp can be used to prepare juices and jellies.
There is strong evidence that cacao was first domesticated by the inhabitants of a swathe of Peruvian, Ecuadorian and Colombian Amazon that includes modern-day Iquitos, in order to create an alcoholic beverage from the pulp.
However, it was in Central America and Mexico that the pre-Columbian peoples cultivated cacao and used it in a way that we would identify as chocolate. In fact, the word ‘cacao’ comes from the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and chocolate came to play a central part in Aztec and Maya ceremonies and belief systems.
It is only in the last 25 years that Peru has seriously entered into the commercialisation of cacao as a commodity, but it has done so with spectacular results. In 2018, Peru was the world’s 9th largest producer of cocoa beans - part of a chocolate market worth $100 billion globally.
And the flavour of these beans, which reflect the diversity of cacao species, soils and climates to be found in Peru, has won admirers.
Aside from the taste and economic value, cacao production has additional benefits:
It is a shade plant, which only thrives when protected from direct sunlight. Therefore, it is planted beneath a canopy of trees, which is less damaging to the rainforest than other crops.
Cacao grows in a similar habitat to the notorious coca leaf - the raw material of cocaine. As a result, cacao production has been promoted to farmers as a legal alternative to coca.
Cacao offers two crops a year: in Peru, the harvest is in April - June and October - November.
A great place to see Peru’s growing chocolate industry is in and around Tarapoto. The high jungle of the area is ideal for growing cacao and there are plenty of plantations to visit. For example, Shilcayo Island, in the Huallaga River, near the village of Chasuta, which specialises in the production Fino de Aroma cocoa.
This can be combined with a trip to Mishky Cacao, an all-female cooperative set up in Chasuta with financial assistance from USAID, that transforms the cocoa beans into chocolate and sweets.
To see chocolate-making in more detail, the interested (and sweet-of-tooth) can visit the Orquidea Chocolate Factory located in Tarapoto itself.
In the company of a guide - and made to wear a lab coat, hair net and shoe coverings - each step of the process is followed, as the cocoa beans, still covered in pulp, are converted into chocolate:
The beans are left to ferment for two to three days, which adds flavour.
They are then left outside for approximately five days, in order to dry in the sun.
The dried seeds are placed into jute sacks for storage.
The seeds are mechanically sorted according to size.
The seeds are roasted in an industrial oven at about 120ºC ( 250ºF) for 45 to 50 minutes. The time and temperature vary depending on size of the seeds.
Once roasted, the cocoa beans still have a thin, papery husk around them which needs removing. So, they are placed in a winnowing machine, that cracks the beans open and blows away the lighter shells with fans. What’s left behind are pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as ‘nibs'.
Milk and/or sugar is added to make chocolate pastes of varying consistencies and degrees of sweetness.
In a separate air-conditioned room, a number of women add different fillings, such as coffee cream and nuts, to the chocolate. This needs to be done while the chocolate paste is at 30ºC (86ºF).
The resultant chocolate trays are then cooled in a fridge for 15 - 20 minutes to maintain the desired shape.
Once cool, the chocolate is cut into bars, before being individually wrapped.
The final, and arguably most important part of the process, is the sampling!