"Being together is like catching a sunbeam; each new memory we make reflects light hinting there is more to see and know."

June 6, 2015

Week 14 ~ It is said that "man can't live by bread alone" ...... but chocolate sure helps

Hello all.  Sorry it's been several weeks since our last blog.  We had a ten day trip to Ecuador and Colombia for training with our AAAs in those two countries.  We wanted to begin this blog entry with our first stop  in Guayaquil Ecuador.   Come enjoy the journey with us!  In this blog section we begin with our trip to a small cacao finca where we met the Lara family of 10, 9 sons and a daughter, Ninfa, who is the "heart" of this delightful small family business.

Ninfa showed us her family cacao finca that was started with her grandfather.  Now she and her 9 brothers, father and mother run this marvelous 15 hectare (about 38 acres) family farm.  She showed us the process from start to finish of how they get from the planted seed to the finished chocolate.  In these photos we start with:
1. Planting of the best cacao seeds taken from the cacao pods on their farm
2. The seeds are grown in small black plastic bags that keep the seed warm and moist
3. The seed grows (in about 2 weeks) into a seedling which are sorted into the best of the best
4.  Can you guess how many seeds are planted during an 8 months period  ...... by hand?
     (over 100,000)
Here Ninfa is showing how they speed up the process of getting the cacao trees to produce fruit.  When her grandfather and then father began this cacao farm, it took four years for the seedlings to grow into a producing tree.  Some years ago Chinese came to the farm and asked if they could show the family how to "graft" small branches from mature producing trees into the seedlings.  They spent days "schooling" the family on the process.  Now these hybrid seedlings grow to mature trees in about a year.
 Once they reach maturity, cacao trees flower continuously during the entire year. The flowers of the cacao tree are tiny pink and/or white five-petaled blossoms. They are found on the trunks and lower branches of the tree, while in general, trees produce their flowers and fruit only on the smallest branches. Botanists refer to this phenomenon as cauliflory. Fewer than 5% of cacao flowers are pollinated.  These flowers can only be pollinated by small, gnat-like midges that can work their way through a cacao blossom's complicated parts.
It would seem that only 5% of the flowers producing fruit would not be very productive, however we learn that this is natures way of thinning the tree and allowing the "correct" amount of pods to grow, not burdening the tree with too much weight.  Even then workers need to prop the branches up to prevent them from breaking and destroying the tree.  Amazing how mother nature takes care of its own. 
Cocoa beans, the base for making chocolate, are the seeds of the cacao tree. They are found inside the cacao pods, surrounded by a sweet white pulp. Each pod contains between 20 and 60 cocoa beans. A variety of chemicals, including theobromine which is very similar to caffeine, give the seeds a bitter flavor. Beans can only germinate within 2 weeks of being harvested. When monkeys, birds, humans or other animals break open the pods to reach the delicious sweet pulp, they spit out the bitter-tasting seeds. This is the clever adaptation that the cacao tree evolved so that its seeds hit the forest floor and sprout into new trees.  We tried this sweet pulp.... yummy!
After showing us the orchard of cacao trees and pods, we were shown how they harvest the cacao beans and remove the pulp surrounding the beans.  Most of the pods on this farm are picked and then sold to larger companies that separate the beans and pulp.  The process of getting the cocoa bean to a dry state ready for grinding into chocolate is explained this way:
1.   Harvesting involves removing ripe pods from the trees and opening them to extract the wet beans. 
2..  The pods are harvested manually by making a clean cut through the stalk with a sharp knife    
3.   The pods are opened to remove the beans within a week to 10 days after harvesting. 
4.   The best way of opening the pods is to use a wooden club, striking the central area of the pod, causing it to split into two halves.  
 5.  After extraction from the pod, the beans undergo a fermentation and drying process. After 48 hours the pulp begins to separate from the bean.
 6.  The beans are left to dry and "die" at which point chemicals are released that allows for the breakdown of the cocoa bean. 
7.  When they are completely broken down through the fermentation and drying process they are ready for dry roasting. Here we see Ninfa's father, Estalin, with me stirring and heating the beans in a big cauldron.  
8.  When ready the beans were put into a hand grinder and at this point the pressure of the grinding made the beans release a dark chocolate paste, Estalin then mixed it with a little brown sugar and then made us some hot chocolate. Diane said it was the "BEST" Chocolate she had ever tasted.  

Estalin also was delighted to talk to us and told Diane and me, that we were the first Mormons ever to visit his finca.  We were honored to be his guests.  Maybe his little grandson will remember us happy gringos who loved his grandpa's cacao farm!

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