On a canvas tarp stretched across a covered wooden frame, we spread the fermented seeds so they can get a little sun-tan going. Occasionally we do extra drying on tarps laid out in a sunny spot on the driveway, but this usually ends in volunteers flying down the driveway to cover the seeds when the afternoon rains arrive.
La Iguana Chocolate grows myriad crops, but the main project is the harvesting and refining of cacao into chocolatey treats such as truffles, soaps, powders, teas, lip balms, and all sorts of goodies that sometimes hardly make it past than the volunteers’ hands. The Salazar family has been growing organic cacao for at least three decades, and the entire process runs on manual labor. Here’s a run-down of the steps:
Cosechar las semillas:
About once a week, Juan Luis, Jorge, and some collection of volunteers depart La Iguana at 5 am to spend a morning harvesting pods from the cacao trees. Armed with machetes and tarps, we cut and haul them back to the house. Each pod contains a cluster of semillas (seeds) covered in a mucus-like white membrane. We cut open the pods, scoop out all the gooey semillas, and stuff them in a sack for fermentation. The white membrane goes with it, although it makes quite a tasty snack on its own in raw form.
Fermentar las semillas:
The cacao fermentation process lasts from four to six days, depending on the weather and the size of the batch. About 40% of the quality of a cacao seed comes from the variety of plant; the other 60% depends on how the seed gets treated in the steps after harvesting, beginning with fermentation. Much of the cacao flavor at the end of the process depends on how much they absorb from the mucosal membrane that ferments in the sack. Every few days the sack needs to be turned to properly distribute heat through the fermenting seeds – otherwise the batch will be unevenly fermented. After six days, it’s time to sun-dry them.
Secar y tostar las semillas:
Moler las semillas (primera vez):
The first time through, we send las semillas through a crude grind to pop them out of their skins (cascaras). Pretty simple.
Aventar y Coler las Cascaras:
Equipped with a giant sifter, half a dozen buckets, and a handheld hair dryer, we sift (coler) and winnow (aventar) the mixture of semillas y cascaras to separate the pure cacao. First we dump everything onto the giant sifter and shake it like
a Polaroid picture we’re panning for gold. Anything left in the sieve gets dumped into a shallow bowl. An ambidextrous volunteer shakes the bowl with one hand and uses the hairdryer in the other to blow out the lightweight cascaras, taking care not to blow away all the cacao. The cascaras blow up in a cloud like leaves in a wind tunnel, which creates a pretty cool effect but quickly coats the lucky volunteer in crud.
We take anything that was small enough to pass through that sifter and…sift it again, using a smaller grade sieve. From this step we get cacao dust, which goes into our tea, and a bucket of small sized cacao nibs and cascaras. These get the same treatment as the first set. After all the winnowing is done, the cacao nibs from both sets go through a hand inspection to take out any foreign objects, so our products are at least 70% pure cacao.
Moler las semillas (segunda vez):
This is the only part of the process that requires minimal manual labor, thanks to the electric grinding machine that Jorge rigged using spare car parts. We pour the toasted cacao seeds into a large metal cone and the machine grinds it into a crude powder, similar to the consistency of large-cut coffee grounds. The machine reminds me a little of Belle’s father’s “invention” in Beauty and the Beast due to its noisy labored progress and the way it kind of bounces in the corner when it first starts up.
Moler las semillas (tercera vez):
After the car parts grinder works its Diseny-esque magic, the resulting product travels over to the hand grinder for yet another round. Getting the metal grinder to the finest possible setting requires some tinkering, some testing, and a bit of luck. Getting the cacao to the finest possible grade requires quite a bit of upper body strength, sweat, and a very strong table. Eventually, the crude grounds become a smooth, buttery chocolate paste. A fingerful of this dipped in some brown sugar makes the whole deal worth it, but that’s not the final destination for these beans.
Extractar la Mantequilla:
Atop one of the large hardwood tables that occupy La Iguana’s porch area lives a curious contraption, also born of car parts and some imagination, that we use to extract butter from the cacao. Lidia lines a metal bucket-shaped colander with something akin to cheesecloth, fills it with cacao paste, and sticks it in this contraption. Then the top presses down in the same way old-fashioned meat grinders operate, but Lidia cinches the contraption in place and leaves the cacao to ooze chocolatey butter into the pan waiting below. Eventually, the butter undergoes various other transformations to become body butter, soap, and lip balm. A few of the volunteers have also used the raw, newly extracted butter as an essential oil for their skin.
Grate the Cacao:
The solid cacao that remains in the top part of the butter-extractor gets left alone to completely dry out – again weather dependent, but not quite as fickle – and then it pops out of the bucket in a solid block. One lucky volunteer (usually a newbie who doesn’t know any better) has the responsibility of laying down a plastic tarp and using a cheese grater to grate the cacao block into the fine powder (polvo) that you typically buy in the store. This can be the end of the cacao’s journey from seed to sale, but we also take it a few steps further.
Truffles and Treats:
At La Iguana Chocolate, we really like the rustic approach. Volunteers equipped with broken kitchen knives and blocks of unadulterated sugar can often be found chipping, scraping, and measuring away to arrive at the proper proportions for truffles and other such goodies. We make tempered chocolates (picture a box of Godiva truffles) starting at 4:30 am so the heat doesn’t melt the molds. About twice a week we bake massive batches of cookies, brownies, and refrigerator cakes called queque frios for other volunteers to buy – the local community I think is fully saturated with the chocolates available, so buying our sweets is more of a gringo thing. The pueblo of Mastatal holds at least three other fincas that host volunteers and one permaculture educational center, so at times the area’s population is half gringo anyway – which makes for great business!