Growing Up with Cacao
For many people, tasting just a small piece of chocolate can trigger a flood of memories, whether it's of their first Hershey's bar or that special cake baked for a birthday or a graduation. It's not quite like that for me. I am fortunate to be a Latin American with long memories drawn from something closer to chocolate's origin. I first got to know it as a fruit.
a strange and wonderful fruit
When my father told me about big, strange-looking fruits that sprouted right out of the tree bark and were filled with the beans that are the source of all chocolate, I formed a mental picture of thick-skinned papayas full of fragrant Hershey's chocolate kisses. Then one day he brought home about a dozen cacao pods from his mother's family farm at the eastern end of Cuba, about eighty miles from our home in Santiago.
They were large oval fruits of many shapes and hues: some rounded and smooth, others longer with bumpy skins and long-ridged grooves, colored in splendid shades of orange, russet, yellow, and green. I was entranced until my father cut open the first pod. Instead of chocolate-colored beans to eat like candy, I found a strange mass of lumpy, tan-colored seeds enclosed in a sticky, glistening ivory pulp that did not even smell like chocolate.
My father scooped out the inside of the pod and gave me some of the pulp to suck on. It had a refreshing sweet-tart flavor and a wonderful aromatic quality that today reminds me of lychees. If you ever taste fresh cacao fruit, you will understand what attracted people to it long before the discovery of chocolate.
I would have eaten the lot happily, but my father, who is an artist, had other plans. He had brought them back to paint. For days I had to endure the sight of those luscious pods arranged in a basket until they shriveled up. I still remember how much I longed to eat that cacao and to go to the place it came from.
Several years later I visited the farm, high in the forested mountains of the upper Jauco River, not far from the southeastern tip of the island. My great-grandparents, Desideria Matos and Francisco Ferrer, who originally came from Alicante, Spain, settled in this isolated and godforsaken area at the end of the nineteenth century. As the Cubans put it, they quickly became aplatanados—that is, they went native like plantain trees. In their new home at Cañas, they began a typical anything-and-everything, mixed-growth farm, living off the land by growing and processing the things they needed, right down to their own home-roasted coffee beans and home-crushed sugarcane juice, which they used for sweetening when they couldn't get commercial sugar. Cacao was sold for cash.
The cacao farm was small and lush, with the deceptively chaotic look characteristic of the tropics, where many kinds of plants are crammed together in a planned give-and-take. My father's elderly uncles and their children tended the cacao growth and harvested the fruit with sharp blades fixed on long poles. The pods were collected in a rustic rectangular basket called a catauro, made from the woody fruit sheath of the royal palm. The men cut open the pods with machetes, removed the mass of beans embedded in the white pulp, and squeezed out as much pulp as they could by hand. Then the beans were spread out on a cedar tray fitted with wheels to dry in the sun. At night, or when it rained, the tray was wheeled into a thatched shed. After a few days, the pale tan beans changed to a reddish brown and were ready to be bagged for sale.
taking chocolate into their own hands
Meanwhile, at the ranch house, another batch of beans was being transformed into chocolate. The aunts and cousins roasted the cacao outdoors—like coffee beans—over a wood fire in a large blackened kettle. Then, they ground the roasted beans into a sticky, fragrant paste in a hand-cranked corn grinder and mixed it with sugar and flour. They rolled the paste between their palms to make balls the size of duck eggs. These were set out to dry. When needed, they grated chocolate off the hard surface, dissolved the gratings in water or milk, and heated it to make a thick hot drink.
How powerful and knowledgeable these women seemed to me, taking chocolate into their own hands! Later I would always remember that I belonged to those who live with cacao and know it personally, as a tree, a fruit, an ordinary household preparation.
Today thousands of such people still live in the cacao-growing regions of Latin America, where the plant originated and chocolate reached its early heights of development. For them, this is a fruit as rooted in the land as potatoes. They are not mystified or intimidated by even the finest commercial chocolates. They, too, have taken a batch of beans and made chocolate.
The chocolate that so fascinated me was meant to be consumed as a drink—the way the Maya and Aztecs and their subjects knew cacao, the way it is mainly used throughout Latin America today. Wherever cacao grows in the New World, someone is harvesting the beans on a small farm or buying them by the kilo at a market to make the same kind of cacao balls for drinking chocolate that my peasant family made at Cañas.
That early memory links me with Latin American chocolate at its plainest and most democratic, economically extended with thickeners. Yet the Ferrer clan's rough-and-ready drink also lingers in my memory when I taste the sophisticated hot chocolate of small artisanal producers in other Latin American regions, from Oaxaca in Mexico to the Paria Peninsula in Venezuela. The complexly layered interaction of fine, skillfully treated cacao with half a dozen Old and New World spices transports me to Spanish colonial drawing rooms with elegantly gowned ladies sitting on low, cushioned stools to sip frothy, spiced hot chocolate from hand-painted gourds or thin porcelain cups.
bridging the information gap: Getting to Know Chocolate from Bean to Bar
In 1994, when I was asked to be a marketing consultant for Chocolates El Rey, a respected Venezuelan chocolate producer, I began to taste, travel, read, correspond, and experiment with an eagerness far beyond what was required of me. Once again I found myself drawn to aspects of the subject that didn't seem to be a part of the general European and American chocolate experience. I saw that even at high levels of connoisseurship, there was an information gap—a lack of communication between those who consume and cook with chocolate and those who produce it.
Probably the watershed events in my realization were the Venezuelan tours on which I led groups of American and European chefs and journalists through some of the finest cacao plantations in the world. As they walked through the farms, I saw their vision of chocolate expanding to take in the living tree and everything that goes into its nurture.
The true appreciation of chocolate quality begins with a link between the different spheres of effort. To know chocolate, you must know that the candy in the box or the chef's creation on the plate begins with the bean, with the complex genetic profile of different cacao strains. Think how impossible it would be to make fine coffee with the coarse, acrid beans of Coffea robusta. You must know also that the flavor of the finished product further depends on people carrying out careful, rigorous harvesting and fermentation practices.
Today, most informed cooks and diners appreciate the many intertwined factors that add up to quality in products like tea, coffee, cheese, and wine. Somehow chocolate was slow to receive the same scrutiny. My Venezuelan trips showed me that chocolate lovers were eager to bridge the gap when offered the opportunity. I detected something cooking, a quiet revolution in the perception and enjoyment of chocolate. I started to see a deeper understanding of cacao's essential nature among a new breed of chocolate manufacturers in developed nations, spearheaded by new outreach efforts on the part of enlightened growers, manufacturers, and researchers in some cacao-producing countries.
Now, perhaps, you will understand the original mission of this book: to encourage as many chocolate lovers as possible to marvel at the pre-Columbian beginning and Spanish colonial flowering of chocolate. I wanted them to understand the many factors—genetic, chemical, environmental—that determine the quality of chocolate at all stages, from the fertilized flower to the foil-wrapped bar. I wanted to take them inside the thinking of the scientists who identify and develop important cacao strains. And I wanted them to see the human face of cacao farming. The life of a plantation worker in the Third World should mean as much to the chocolate lover as that of the chef who transforms a bar of chocolate into a work of art.
It has been wonderful for me to see how these issues have gradually become a part of people's awareness in talking about chocolate. I like to think that my book had something to do with it. I can't count the number of times that chocolate makers, chefs, and food lovers have told me how much they appreciated my book and how it changed their perception of this wonderful food.
But cacao and chocolate history have moved fast in the last eight years. Today anyone trying to sketch an overall picture must reckon not only with breathtaking new developments in fields from archaeology to modern cacao genetics, but with a swift tide of geopolitical changes that are redrawing the world map of chocolate. The chocolate industry also has changed, both to satisfy the new expectations of savvier consumers and to adjust to new realities in the world cacao supply.
It is for these reasons that in a surprisingly short time, I knew that I would have to revisit the book. I began to glimpse both a richer past and a brighter future for chocolate than I could have imagined even as recently as eight years ago—together with agricultural challenges that have the potential to destroy or transform the industry.
More than two hundred years ago, Carolus Linnaeus, the great Swedish founder of modern botany, bestowed on the cacao tree the scientific name Theobroma cacao, or "food-of-the-gods cacao." Truly, for many people, chocolate is as close to celestial as any food can be. But I hope that through this book you will find an equal fascination in the story of its roots in the earth, and learn to see it as a food of the people.
A Natural and Cultural History of Chocolate
"Where there is cacao, there is life," a Venezuelan plantation worker once said to me, referring to both his own livelihood and to the nurturing relationship between cacao and the land. No tree has more to teach us than cacao, when we take the trouble to see it in its own environmental and biological context.
In nearly every part of the world where cacao trees are raised today, they are surrounded by other useful plants that shade them at different points in their life cycle. The true cacao—Theobroma cacao, Linnaeus's "food of the gods—is perfectly adapted to the demands of the humid New World tropics, which lie roughly within the latitudes of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. At least twenty remarkably similar wild Latin American cousins in the Theobroma genus live in the shadowed forest understories today. One of them, T. bicolor, or pataxte, is a food crop in Mexico and Central America. Another has enough culinary merit to have become an important domesticated crop of its own: T. grandiflora, the prized cupuaçu fruit of the Brazilian Amazon. These plants share the habit
of putting forth flowers from cushionlike patches on the trunk (a condition called "cauliflory") and displaying all stages of flower and fruit growth year-round.
The origin of cacao is a subject mired in controversy, but most modern scientists argue that cacao first grew in South America. Recent DNA analysis pinpoints two areas that gave rise to different genotypes, or genetic makeups. One was the Amazon River basin, with Peru as the center of greatest biodiversity. The other lies in modern Venezuela, south of the udder-shaped Lake Maracaibo and in the foothills of the Venezuelan and Colombian Andes.
In the beginning, the different members of the cacao complex found their local niches—and incidentally, spread different parts of an original genetic dowry according to nature's own choreography. Then something triggered an unknown chain of events that would transform sturdy wild plants occupying well-based environmental nooks into a particularly valuable crop transplanted into precarious new circumstances.
cacao enters the kitchen
Historians have not established when, how, or why cacao began to be carried north. But its real culinary history begins far from its place of origin, in the tropical lowlands of the region now known as Mesoamerica. The variety of cacao native to northwestern South America seems to have been established here by the second millennium BC.
"Mesoamerica" is the area between central Mexico and western Honduras, including all of Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador. It was here that unknown discoverers first took the uses of cacao to new stages. Like other peoples, they must have begun by using cacao as a fruit, for the sake of the sweet white pulp. Even today, cacao furnishes Latin American cooks with both fresh and fermented drinks. But a more complex history unfolded when someone looked past the gooey white interior of the multicolored cacao fruits to the almond-sized seeds enclosed in each pod.
Some historians speak of this development as a miraculous leap, pointing to the fact that a cacao seed (officially "bean") in its natural form is an unpromising and usually bitter object. But it's not that simple. The culinary investigation of the beans seems logical and inevitable, given the systematic way in which the pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica approached most of their standard foods. What they did with the astringent but oil-rich beans was spread them to dry in the sun, roast them on clay comales (griddles), and then grind them on stone slabs—all everyday techniques used with such common foods as chiles, pumpkin seeds, and corn. The miraculous part is not that they tried the same procedures on cacao, but that these procedures chemically transformed it into something almost unrecognizable—chocolate. The sweet pulp softened and melted by itself or was rinsed away with the fibrous material ("placenta") holding it together. The interior of the beans fermented to some degree in the sun; other compounds were formed during roasting. Grinding the roasted seeds released their oils along with other volatile substances produced in the earlier treatments, creating an irresistibly fragrant paste that could be shaped into little cakes or balls and dried for future use.