After my week living with the farmers of Chulucanas, I really wanted to give something back to the communities who received me so kindly and with such an open heart.
Surprisingly, I discovered, it is very rare for cacao farmers to actually taste the product that is made with their beans.
Although most cacao producers have excellent knowledge of cultivation techniques and sensitive tasting palates, their skills and talents are often undervalued. Producers are just asked to produce beans, and they see little of what actually happens to them once they have been harvested.
Chocolate companies sometimes claim that they work directly with producers, but one part of the process that often seems to be left out is initiating producers into the tasting process. In my view this is particularly important, and potentially a win-win move for both producers and gourmet chocolate manufacturers. In tasting their own beans, producers would learn to recognize their special qualities – and also any defects that may develop in cultivation and the post-harvest processes of fermentation and drying which are crucial for making fine aromatic chocolate.
Getting the producers to recognise the flavour profiles of their beans can help them to understand what chocolate manufacturers are looking for and give them the motivation to produce quality beans. It can also help them be aware of the true value that their beans deserve in the market place.
With this objective in mind, I took the initiative to organise a tasting session that would help the cacao producers to recognise the characteristics and flavours of their beans. I also wanted the producers to be aware of the disagreeable flavours that develop as a result of poor fermentation and drying.
So off I went to the local market to buy some of the ingredients needed to help the producers to identify the flavours that one can encounter during chocolate or cacao liquor tasting sessions.
I brought all sorts of nuts and dried fruit, so that the producers could understand what we mean when we describe chocolate as having a nutty flavour profile. For the frutal and floral flavour profiles, I asked each community to bring fruits and flowers that grow in their own fields. For the frutal profile, I asked the producers to bring the fruits that they grow; such as pineapples, papaya, and mangoes. For the citrus profiles, they brought their lemons, mango-ciruela, passion fruit and grapefruits – all freshly picked from their cacao plantations! And finally for the floral flavour profile, we picked wild roses and violets.
In order to recognise some of the more negative sensations that can appear due to poor post-harvest processes, I brought paracetamol tablets, which give an idea of what we mean when we say that the chocolate has a bitter after-taste. This is something that often appears if the beans haven’t fully completed the drying process. To recognise the various types of acidity that can develop due to poor and incomplete fermentation and remain in the taste of the bean, I brought ingredients that reflect the flavours and smells of each acid.
I brought the most basic vinegar to reflect how acetic acid tastes and smells. I brought sour yoghurt, which reflects the tasting profile of lactic acid. And finally, plain cough mixture, which is the perfect ingredient to describe the smell and taste of butyric acid.
In order to describe and understand the astringency effect, I asked the producers to pick their greenest bananas. If you ever get the chance to taste a green banana, you will see that they dry out your mouth: this is exactly what the astringency found in poorly processed cacao tastes like!
My next task is to transform the beans into cacao liquor. I use a process similar to that described in my previous posting: first roast the beans, then grind them into nibs, remove their shells, and finally put them in the conching machine for a couple of hours until the beans are finely pressed into what we call cacao liquor. As I am processing a special criollo variety, the duration of the conching process is relatively short, since the beans naturally have very low acidity levels in comparison to the forastero variety, the CCN 51.
As I taste the liquor made with beans from each of the three cacao farming communities, accompanied by the Sourcing Cocoa Manager of the cooperative, their flavour profiles and characteristics become evident. I can also distinguish where the post-harvest processes can be slightly improved. For example, the beans of one particular community have quite a bitter after-taste, due to their fermentation process. Indeed, their beans are below the fermentation percentage often requested by gourmet chocolate manufacturers.
As I do the tasting sessions with the members of each community, I am touched by their receptiveness.
They are really appreciative of the fact that someone like me has taken the time to join them in tasting the flavours and characteristics of their beans.
The producers’ taste buds are amazing, I am stunned by the way they describe the flavours that they taste in the cacao liquor. It far beats what I have observed among so-called professional “chocolate tasters” who have had years of practice and training.
Having been brought up living so close to their own plantations, and cooking using only fresh locally grown ingredients, they quickly recognise tastes and are naturally excellent tasters!
The tasting sessions are a real success. As we do blind tastings of each of the three liquors, I am amazed how each community succeeds in recognizing their own liquor, despite this being the very first time that they get to taste it!
One day, I hope I can come back with a chocolatier who truly makes chocolate “from bean to bar” using the beans from these local communities and get them to taste the chocolate made from their very own fine beans!