the plantation - The 'long' story
In Principe, hidden in the forest, I finally found the cacao trees that I was looking for.
Most of them had been reproduced by the monkeys who had been sucking the pulp from the ripe seeds. They take a ripe pod, make a hole with their teeth (surprisingly always at the same part of the pod). The hole is just large enough to put in their hands, take out the seeds and fill their mouth and cheeks.
Once they are finished, they climb in a high tree to be safe. At their leisure, they suck the pulp that is attached to the seeds (the so called beans). Then they spit out the beans creating small nurseries. Many of those seeds come out and in the following months the strongest turn into trees. The selective process of nature is at work here.
Where we found most of these trees, we constructed a cabin.
In the years to come, working passionately, we cleared the plantation of undergrowth, we planted new trees for giving shade (the old ones were used for its wood), and we started sowing new plants.
Creating the right circumstances for the trees we found, with enough shade and plenty circulation of air, the plants started to develop and to give healthy fruits.
I love the perfume of the pulp. It smells fresh and sweet.
The pulp itself is not used, but I liked the smell so much that I didn't want it let go to waste. Whenever there was a tiny pause in the hard and demanding work, I thought about the possibility of catching this perfume of the pulp. Finally, it dawned on me and I started distilling it. This was definitely a great idea.
In anticipation of our first harvest, we started to create the space for the transformation and for experiments that I had in mind.
Finally, the harvest started and I could begin with these experiments.
The fermentation is the first - mandatory - step. And like all fermentation processes it is a very delicate stage in the whole process.
In years of experimenting we succeeded in developing a natural method of fermentation in which we proceeded from one beautiful smell to the next. Just like I wanted from the start.
Then the moment came to dry all these cacao beans. I had thought already so much about it. I had to find exactly the right temperature and then ... the way of executing it. This meant again a lot of experimenting, making drawings, but in the end we were there, albeit not without suffering.
The moment the cacao had the right dryness, we put the beans in small bags that are easy to handle. Now they were ready to ship on one of the ships that with a certain regularity leave for the island of Sao Tome, 90 miles away over the Ocean.
When the boat arrives at Sao Tome, before the cacao is unloaded, signor Arlindo is the first to get on board. Signor Arlindo is responsible for the chocolate factory.
Signor Arlindo checks whether all the bags are OK and whether the waves did not get to the bags. It is important to do this before the bags are offloaded, because from the position of the bags he can understand where the water entered the boat and consequently how to avoid this happening the next time.
Only after Signor Arlindo has given his OK, they begin to take the cacao from the boat.
Our cacao is easily handed over from one person to the next, without touching the floor, from the boat to the truck, because the bags are not too big. The truck will transport the cacao to our plantation 'Nova Moca'.
At this stage we can safely say that 60% of the work towards making good chocolate has been done. We have the necessary ingredient to make the chocolate as we like it. Before the beans are being roasted they are checked: those that are empty, broken, or have some other defect are thrown out. When they are all clean and checked, we divide them by size to make sure that they are roasted in the same manner. This way, we secure that the beans give of their best flavors.
When roasting coffee, the color change is one of the ways of checking that the roasting is done the right way. However, this is not possible with cacao beans because they are still in their shell. We follow each roasting separately. Lots of data is collected such as the time and the temperature. With this information lots of notebooks have been filled over the years. If the temperature is too low and the roasting time too long, this means that the 'joy' is out of the beans. While a high temperature and a shorter roasting time means that they become bitter and sharp. Slowly we got closer. But there was a time when 95% was not right and it was thanks to the 5 % we did get right that I knew that it was our mistake. Otherwise I would have been thinking that roastied cacao has the taste of dried fruit or a burned taste.
Slowly, helped by the great quality of the cacao, we found our
"magic moment" of the right toasting. We finally cracked it!
From the nibs to the chocolate it seems a small step, but that is not true. Cacao is a living product, it wants to be known, treated right. Even a minimal distraction in its treatment you have to pay dearly. At every turn taste and intensity can change in apparently unpredictable ways, evoking different sensations. The refinement is another risky step in this process. However, we were close to the 100% that we want, an absolute dream, the basis for all our chocolate. A 100% that by itself tells the amount of attention is paid to the cacao.