The last few days have been spent learning, researching and understanding all about the cultivation of cacao right from the tree to the bean.
As I am shown round some of the local cacao farmers’ fields, I begin to understand how cacao needs to be cultivated and harvested to obtain high quality cacao, which will ultimately influence the taste of fine chocolate.
Looking at the cacao tree, it is hard to imagine that the world’s favourite delicacy starts from here.
The main cacao variety grown in this area is CCN-51, which stands for Coleccion Castro Naranjal, where 51 stands for the cross number of this variety. The CCN-51 is a clone introduced from Ecuador. About 80% the cacao production in the region of San Martin is CCN-51 variety.
This specific variety was mainly introduced as an alternative crop to coca because of its high productivity levels. In comparison to other cacao varieties which take five to six years before it will bear fruit, the CCN-51 only takes two to three years. In addition the CCN-51 has high productivity levels and is more resistant to diseases.
Each cacao tree in this particular area produces around 2 kilos of dried cacao. This is particularly high, in comparison to the “criollo” or the “cacao aromatico” which renders about half of that amount.
In comparison to the CCN-51, the cacao pods of the Criollo variety (as shown below) are yellow and smaller.
The pods of the CCN-51 variety are bigger and a darker colour. Each pod contains about 40 to 50 beans. The beans are covered in sticky white, sweet tasting pulp, which will be critical for the ultimate development of the bean’s flavours during the fermentation process.
Along the shady aisle of cacao trees, tall trees have been planted especially to provide shade and protect the cacao tree from the direct sunlight. In this field, papaya and guava trees have been planted to provide shade. The types of trees planted in the cacao fields also influence the flavors and aromas of the beans. Hence, why some chocolatiers use the same concept to that of the terroir as in wine-making. However I must admit that this is not something that has particularly stood out as being critical for the production of high quality cacao. Perhaps it is a given fact here. In my view, the cacao variety, its harvest and post harvest are critical for bringing out the best flavours of cacao.
The cacao tree flowers in cycles of 6 months. After 6 months the cocoa pods are full-grown and change colour from green to yellow-orange or dark red depending on the variety. It is important to pick the pods when they are just right, as this will also influence the quality of the cacao beans.
With great care, to not damage the branches, the pods are delicately selected and removed from the trees individually, by hand. The pods are then carefully split open by hand or with a “machete”.
The almond looking beans are scooped out and the outer shell is discarded.
The outer shells of the pods serve as natural soil fertilizers. What amazes me about cacao, is that right from the moment it is picked and its process of becoming chocolate, every part of this magical fruit is recyclable and has an important use.
The pulp and the juice surrounding the beans is sweet and a real delicacy. As I savour the the beans, I taste a sweet, lemony flavour from the pulp. The actual bean is bitter and hard to eat.