We were warmly greeted by Jorge and his family, who then showed us to our tree house where we would be staying for the next two weeks. The views were stunning but it was a little worrying that we could see them through the open wall, which would allow any bug, insect, frog or snake in if they so desired. We had a mosquito net to protect us and luckily most of the animals listed above preferred to be in the rainforest and not in our room.
After a surprisingly good nights sleep we started work the next day and it became apparent very quickly that farming and processing chocolate has many different stages and was a more complicated process than we had anticipated. La Iguanas is an organic cocoa farm. Now this is a very brave step to take as the fight to keep the cocoa tree fungus at bay is very labour intensive, but they must be doing something right because when we arrived at the plantation for the weeks harvesting, all the trees bore plenty of cocoa pods. Not all of them were ready for picking, so we had to go hunting for those that had started to turn yellow (Step 1).
This plantation had a mix of all the bean types, Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario, as well as a Porcelana, a bean which we have never heard of before and is a strain of the Criollo bean. At the moment all the beans are being put into one pot, but one of Jorge's projects is to identify each tree. Some of the trees have already been tagged as the Porcelana bean. Once the pods were picked and we had been eaten by monster mosquitos, the cocoa pods were split and we stripped out the beans complete with white flesh to be fermented (Step 2). We were recommended to try the white flesh pulp that surrounds the bean, which we did with a little apprehension, but it was surprisingly tasty and sweet!
We left the beans to ferment in a shallow tray for about a week depending on the weather (Step 3). The beans were stirred and mixed every day to ensure an even fermenting process was taking place. After a week the cocoa beans no longer had the fleshy outer and were now a hard brown bean. These are then spread out onto a covered netting for them to fully dry in the heat of the day (Step 4). Again it was our job as volunteers to rake and move the beans a few times during the day to help with the drying process. Then these were placed onto matting in direct sunlight for the final drying stage (Step 5). There were a few panic moments when the tropical rain came in and we all had to rush to save the drying beans.
Often, once the beans were dry, they were bagged and shipped for larger companies to continue the process of turning the beans into chocolate. But lucky for us La Iguanas also kept some beans back to carry on the process as they sell chocolate to locals, which is much more profitable for them. The first thing that we needed to do with all the beans was to roast them. The beans were wet first, to get the shell damp, but not too much so the beans stayed dry. Then they were placed in a large open pan that sat over an oil drum with a wood fire inside. It took about half an hour for the beans to roast and they required continuous stirring (Step 6). When the beans began to pop they were ready. The warm beans were then taken to a different area of the farm for shelling. Large companies have efficient machines for this process but La Iguanas used the traditional process of shelling by hand. So all volunteers helped with this process and every single bean was individually shelled, discarding the husks to one side and keeping the bean (Step 7).
This is the point where the beans were used for a number of different things and had to go through a variety of different processes. To try and simplify the different stages I have shown them in the diagram above.
The beans were ground in a belt driven grinder first, then ground again in a hand grinder, creating a paste called the cocoa liquor (Step 8). This was either left to dry and then cut into chocolate chips for cooking, or mixed with sugar and ground again for the La Iguanas own recipe chocolate (Step C1 - C3), or it was put into the press to extract the cocoa butter. The press squeezes out the cocoa butter from the liquor and leaves behind the cocoa mass (Step A1). Both are left to dry/harden.
The cocoa mass is ground again with a fine grinder and sifted to make cocoa powder (Step A2). The cocoa butter can either be used for cosmetics (La Iguanas makes their own soap and lip salve) or the butter is mixed with some more cocoa liquor that has not been pressed for the next step of making chocolate. Pretty much all chocolate has more cocoa butter in it than the natural bean, so the cocoa powder will always be a by-product of making chocolate. The cocoa powder is great for cooking or drinking chocolate (Step A3).
We used a double boiler to melt the chocolate liquor and then added the cocoa butter, mixing them together (Step B1). Once they were completely melted and mixed, we put it into a granite wheel grinding machine. This was left to grind the chocolate for about 20 hours, adding bits of sugar during the process. After this time the chocolate should be smooth, with no grainy feel in the mouth (Step B2). Then came the fun. Costa Rica is a perfect place for growing cocoa but if you don't have a room with a controlled environment it is the worst place for tempering chocolate (Step B3).
Jerome tried to temper the chocolate but the granite table was just too warm to properly cool the chocolate. Many discussions were had about how to get the correct environment with the limited resources that were available to us. It was finally decided that we were going to try at the coolest time; in the middle of the night. The first night at, 02:00 am, it was still too warm for them to try, but the second night at about 04:00 they decided to give it a go. Much to everyone's delight Jerome managed to temper the chocolate earning him the name of “Senõr Chocolat” from the family. All the tempered chocolate was eaten long before I had chance to take any photos!
After two full weeks of hands-on work we felt we had learnt so much about the processes the chocolate has to go through before it reaches our lips. We have only scratched the surface of the wealth of knowledge Jorge and his family have about farming cocoa. The experience was amazing and invaluable. And we hope that not only can we use this new information to help us move forward as an artisan chocolate company, but also in the future we can use our knowledge to help La Iguanas.