I have been growing cacao since 1996 at the Hacienda El Tesoro, my beautiful farm in the breathtaking heights of the Henri Pittier National Park in Choroni, Venezuela.
Just ten degrees north of the equator, the thousand acre farm rises into the cloud forest. When I bought it I planted 10,000 cacao trees in plantations with a bio-diversity so varied that it lays claims to 3% of the world’s flora and 7% of the world’s bird species, as well as the legendary Chuao cacao, the bean that produces some of the world’s finest chocolate.
Until the 1950s Venezuela was one of the world’s largest producers of cacao, but the rise of oil and petroleum meant that traditional industries were neglected. As a result, some of the original strains of Venezuelan cacao have remained pure in the intervening years, whereas cacao growers in the rest of the world have been producing hybrid strains – from the Forastero bean - that yield bigger crops, at a cost to flavor and aroma.
I went on a quest to find fine beans with pure criollo characteristics to help replant the hacienda. On the Costa Maya I discovered a small plantation of 1,000 cacao trees within a coffee area planted a century previously. Because the cacao was in a coffee region, the trees hadn’t cross-pollinated with other plantations, which made them the ideal choice for replanting.
No pesticides, fertilizer or chemical of any description have ever been used on our cacao trees, which are irrigated by water that runs down from the cloud forest-topped mountains.
The cacao tree is native to the northern Amazon basin. It grows in the shade of the tropical cloud forest, fed by the nutrients and water passed down from the canopy above. At the Hacienda El Tesoro our cacao trees produce criollo beans, the rarest, most highly prized cacao beans in the world. The trees flourish beneath 20-metre tall African Mijao trees, which arrived with the Conquistadors and thrived on the deep, moist, compost-rich soil of the forest floor. Ginger plants prosper naturally beneath the cacao trees, shaded by their smooth bright green oblong leaves. The Mijao tree also produces a high protein bean shaped like a broad bean that the Spanish used to feed to their pigs. To feed our own pigs we followed suit and created a little cottage industry in the village. It felt much better than buying the dreadful animal feed which they sold to fatten pigs.
Cacao trees take three to five years to mature, but from the moment we plant them we’re tending them, cleaning around the bases to keep the weeds away and making sure that they’re properly irrigated. At Hacienda El Tesoro there are around 20,00 cacao trees – 1,000 trees per hectare – so we’re always busy.
One of the wonders of the world is walking through shafts of sunlight past the trees with the multi-coloured pods jutting straight from the trunk and lower branches. It’s like magic twice a year. The principle crop is in November after the rainy season.
The cacao pods take five months to grow from the blossom bud to ripe fruit. We harvest the trees twice a year, in November and July, when the pods are at their absolute peak of ripeness. This has to be done by hand, with machetes, taking great care not to damage the budding new flowers or cut the bean because once it dries it will break up. There are about 30-40 beans in each pod and each ones weighs about a gram when feremented and dried.
Fermentation is crucial to the taste of cacao: without it, cacao beans won’t develop a chocolate flavour, but if you mess it up, you can ruin a great cacao harvest. After the beans and pulp have been removed from the pod, they are placed in hardwood boxes, covered in banana leaves and turned twice a day to aerate them. Inside the boxes, the beans soon become a big mulchy mass and juice leaks from the pulp. The oxygen in the air activates the enzymes in the pulp sugar, causing it to acidify, which changes the chemical composition of the beans. Yeast cells, that grow and divide as a result of this change, produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, causing the beans to heat up; they give off a strong aroma as they reach temperatures of around 52℃. It’s a natural chemical process and the most important stage is the rise in temperature: the porous shell of the cacao bean expands; there is traffic between inside and out; and the aroma of chocolate starts to develop.
Fermentation has been around for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the scientist Louis Pasteur identified what was happening during the process in 1856 that it was understood and formalized. The British later developed and systemized cacao fermentation on their plantations in Trinidad and Jamaica. So how did the Maya and Aztecs get it right? One theory is that they put their cacao in boxes to let it drain before they put it out to dry, perhaps unaware that this process of natural fermentation was crucial to developing the chocolate flavour. For them, draining the pulp may simply have made the drying process easier; anyway, criollo beans need to be fermented for only a few days. Other varieties may take up to six days. There have been experiments with different methods of fermentation but this traditional remains the most successful.
Drying the beans is less complex than fermenting, but it requires care and attention. After around 120 hours of fermentation, the beans are placed in the sun, first for a gentle dry, an hour in the morning and afternoon, when they need to be turned constantly. Exposure to the sun is then increaseed by the day, until the beans are dried, usually over the course of a week.
At El Tesoro, the way we make sure our beans are completely dry is to weigh them, put them out in the sun and weigh them again afterwards. When they weigh the same before and after, they’re done. The optimum humidity of a dried bean is 7.5%. A bean that’s too moist won’t keep, and a bean that’s too dry will break up and be difficult to roast because the broken pieces could easily burn in the roaster.