Sunday, March 27, 2016

Searching for the Food of the Gods

            Our driver came back to the van to tell us that he’d been given “Costa Rican directions”. In other words we were still lost.  We’d driven four hours from San Jose towards the Caribbean coast. The twelve of us were weary and looking forward to a pit stop but this sparsely populated jungle did not look promising. 
            I felt like I was heading to the beginning of a story that I had started in the middle.  Two years ago I visited the Chocolate Lounge in Asheville and toured their French Broad Chocolate factory  where the long lines, delicious treats and the story of the founders had impressed me tremendously. 
In Jael Rattigan’s blog, she recounted her literal “follow your bliss” experience that occurred as she toyed with making truffles during a dark point in her life.  “My hands were covered in melted chocolate (up to my elbows, Dan remembers) as I rolled the truffles into the dark, molten liquid. Suddenly, I distinctly felt my hands tingle; I moved my gaze to them, held them outstretched in front of my face, and stared. I felt the gut-twisting, dizzying feeling of pure inspiration. With clarity, I said to my hands:chocolate is the thing that will make me happy.”  She credits Dan with holding her accountable for this revelation which she might otherwise have dismissed as frivolous.  Instead her notion became a hugely successful business which processes 4 ½ tons of chocolate a year and ships to over 100 retailers throughout the country as well as serving over 300 retail customers daily.  Now we were searching for the provenance of their chocolate.
            The van continued bouncing down the rutted road.  A man on a bicycle emerged from a field and signaled us to follow him.  He walked ahead of the van very slowly and turned into a small path between the banana trees.  Soon the bus couldn’t go any further so we got out to walk up the steep hill.  At the top there were sheds, platforms, machinery and long buildings covered with tarps.  We’d found the once abandoned cacao farm the Rattigans had purchased and restored.   It provides French Broad Chocolate with some of the beans to make truffles, confections and pastries, making them one of a handful of chocolatiers in the world to be bean-to-bar-to-truffle confectioners.      

     We were met by Mauricio, a farm worker, who explained the methodical process required to grow and prepare the product.  “At first we plant the tree.  We get fruit in two to three years.”  He plucked a cacao fruit off a tree and broke it open. It’s the size and shape of a papaya.  We sucked white pulp from the large seeds.  It tasted vaguely like lemon yogurt.  Hard to believe that this is related in any way to chocolate truffles, I thought.  It was also a revelation to learn from Mauricio how much work is involved to turn this sticky mess into the candy confection we love.  The pulpy seeds are fermented in the sun for six days, growing hot as they sit and are stirred.  Then they’re dried on racks 10 to 15 days, moving them each day.  Some processors use a shortcut by cooking the seeds “but I think it’s not the same taste,” Mauricio says. “It’s forced.”  We noticed that the equipment to accomplish all of this looked homemade: ingenious assemblies of gears, convertible platforms, covers moving on runners and jerry-rigged arrangements.  They were reminiscent of the Willy Wonka-esque equipment at the factory in Asheville that Dan built from cast-off parts, saving them tons in start up costs.
            The farm ships the beans to Asheville for roasting but for our visit they were roasted in a cast iron kettle over a fire.  The chaff was blown into the wind similar to rice in a fanner basket.  The roasted beans were ground into a coarse powder in a hand cranked grinder.  For our benefit, our hosts had made some brownies.  Coconuts were picked, cracked open with machetes and equipped with straws.  What a treat!  No wonder the Aztecs called chocolate the “food of the Gods.”  Mauricio had his own commentary.  “Chocolate keeps you young and strong.”  
      Our familiarity with chocolate’s folklore was just beginning. Later in the week we were going to stay with the indigenous Bri Bri people.  There chocolate is practically a sacrament and has a deeply spiritual importance.    Babies are bathed in it when they’re born.  Deceased people are embalmed with it. But that’s another story. 
            As we left the cacao farm a fellow traveler Jennifer remarked about the investment of time, energy, money and attention that’s required to grow our craved confections and the new found respect we’d gained for the process.  “This will make you feel better about paying $7 for a chocolate bar,” she quipped.     

If You Go
French Broad Chocolates