In my last post, you saw how cacao is grown and harvested, particularly on a small scale. In this post, I’ll share an overview of how I observed the cacao pulp and beans taken from their raw state through fermenting, roasting, and drying, resulting in cacao beans that can be used to make chocolate.
The first step is fermentation, which is largely when the flavor of the cacao bean is developed. Once the pulp and beans are removed from the cacao pods, they are taken through the fermentation process. The facility I visited in Belize takes the cacao beans through fermentation in wooden bins—that are outdoors—in three stages over a span of five to seven days (see picture).
During this period, the beans in the wooden bins are covered with banana leaves or sacks. The cacao beans are transferred from one row of bins to another, for the sake of rotating the beans, controlling the temperature that the beans emit during fermentation, and allowing for consistent fermentation. During the fermentation process, the cacao beans turn from whitish purple to a reddish brown color.
Once fermented, the beans are set outdoors to dry for up to seven days. Here’s Eladio drying cacao beans outside his home under the sun. He turns them over during that time to ensure the beans dry evenly.
After the cacao beans are dried, they are roasted. At Eladio’s, his eldest daughter roasted the cacao beans for approximately thirty minutes on a comal—a heavy, circular cast iron griddle. She had also used the comal earlier in the afternoon to show us how to make corn tortillas to enjoy with our lunch.
Once the beans are roasted, they open easily and reveal cacao nibs. Eladio’s daughter used a stone to crack the beans open, and I followed her lead.
After cracking the shells of the beans, she gathered the shells and nibs in a large bowl and separated them by tossing them until most of the shells had fallen out and the nibs remained in the bowl.
At the factory I visited, this process of winnowing (separating the shell from the nibs) was accomplished by using the air from a hair dryer to blow the shells away. Again, this is all being done on a relatively small scale.
Once the cacao nibs are separated, you have nibs that can be enjoyed as-is. In order to transform the nibs into chocolate, however, there are additional steps that have to be taken.
After a hearty lunch with Eladio at his home, his daughter prepared a hot drink for us from the nibs that she had just separated from the cacao beans. She showed us two methods of grinding the cacao nibs into a paste. The first was to crush the cacao nibs on a volcanic stone called a “metate” by moving a stone back and forth over the nibs.
She also showed us that the nibs could be ground by placing them in a manually-operated tabletop grinder. I’d seen that grinder also used to grind corn for tortillas.
After grinding the nibs into a paste, Eladio’s daughter stirred some of the paste with hot water, allspice, and ginger for a hot drink. If you’ve had nibs before, you can imagine the drink was bitter but had a rich chocolate taste. I hesitate to call it “hot chocolate” because it’s 100% cacao, water, and spices—very different than the hot chocolate we are accustomed to in the U.S.
Seeing the cacao fruit before it’s transformed into chocolate was a remarkable experience. And my time in southern Belize was likewise life-changing. Stay tuned for a post on the culture of southern Belize.