El Tesoro and Cacao Farming
I have been growing cacao since 1996 at the Hacienda El Tesoro, my beautiful farm in the breath-taking heights of the Henri Pittier National Park in Venezuela. I am a cacao farmer first and a chocolate maker second. This is what has enabled me to make chocolate from bean to bar as I do. I have the experience to know exactly what beans I want and to buy them directly from the farmers.
I had never intended to become a cacao farmer. I visited the farm quite by chance and fell immediately in love the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. It was my first miraculous taste of hot chocolate made from my El Tesoro beans that opened my eyes to real chocolate.
On the mountainside we simply heated cacao liquor with water and a touch of cane sugar. I had never tasted anything like it, such delicious and distinct flavours, quite unlike sugary fatty confection we have come to know as chocolate. It gave me an extraordinary physical feeling of energy and wellbeing.
I set out on a mission to help the world re-discover the magical ingredient that ancient south American peoples, the Mayans and Aztecs, knew as the food of the gods; a heady, intoxicating experience that is light years away from modern mass market chocolate confectionary in which the cacao content is eclipsed by fat and sugar.
I was in my element living on the farm. The mountainside became an extension of my kitchen. There were mango and nutmeg trees on the lawn. We’d climb shade trees and collect the vanilla pods. Ginger plants love it beneath the cacao trees, shaded by their smooth bright green oblong leaves. I had jars of infusions of every edible plant, fruit or root we could find. It was constant experimentation and of course there was nothing I didn’t try making using cacao.
PLANTING & GROWING
My cacao plantation had been neglected for years so I needed to replant large areas. I travelled the length and breadth of Venezuela looking for the purest strains of cacao. At each stop I whipped out a cast iron pan, and grinder and made a cacao liquor to combine with cream to make basic truffles. It is the best way to catch the flavour profiles.
On the Costa Maya I discovered a small plantation of 1,000 cacao trees within a coffee area planted a century previously. Because the cacao was in a coffee region, the trees hadn’t cross-pollinated with other plantations, which made them the ideal choice for replanting.
The tree that produces these ancient and fine varieties of cacao is native to the northern Amazon basin. These types of cacao are farmed under shade trees, alongside other crops, using traditional methods. It is very different to large monoculture plantations in Africa. Here the varieties have been engineered to be fast growing and disease resistant and are grown with very little shade.
Fine cacao isn’t at all easy to grow. It is fussy, requiring the hot, damp conditions that can only be found 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator; it must be planted next to taller trees that protect it from direct sun; and it won’t bear fruit until it’s three to five years old. Even then, each tree produces just 1000 beans a year, which is only enough to make about a kilo of chocolate.
It demands year-round moisture; and it is vulnerable to all kinds of diseases, from moulds and rots to a catastrophic growth known as ‘witch’s brooms’.
This is all incredibly labour- intensive and time-consuming. Every stage of the process, from planting, irrigating and harvesting to fermenting and drying is done mainly by hand.
At the Hacienda El Tesoro our cacao trees produce criollo beans, the rarest, most highly prized cacao beans in the world. The trees flourish beneath 20-metre tall African Mijao trees which produce a high protein bean which we used to fee our pigs. This created a little cottage industry in the village. It felt much better than buying the dreadful animal feed which they sold to fatten animals.
One of the wonders of the world is walking through shafts of sunlight past the trees with the multi-coloured pods jutting straight from the trunk and lower branches.
From the moment we plant them we’re tending them, cleaning around the bases to keep the weeds away and making sure that they’re properly irrigated. No pesticides, fertilizer or chemical of any description have ever been used on our cacao trees, which are irrigated by water that runs down from the cloud forest-topped mountains.
The cacao pods take five months to grow from the blossom bud to ripe fruit. It is like magic twice a year. We harvest the trees in November which is the principle crop, and July, when the pods are at their absolute peak of ripeness.
This has to be done by hand, with machetes, taking great care not to damage the budding new flowers or cut the bean because once it dries it will break up. There are about 30-40 beans in each pod and each ones weighs about a gram when fermented and dried.
Fermentation is crucial to the taste of cacao: without it, cacao beans won’t develop a chocolate flavour , but if you mess it up, you can ruin a great cacao harvest.
After the beans and pulp have been removed from the pod, they are placed in hardwood boxes, covered in banana leaves and turned twice a day to aerate them. Inside the boxes, the beans soon become a big mulchy mass and juice leaks from the pulp.
The oxygen in the air activates the enzymes in the pulp sugar, causing it to acidify, which changes the chemical composition of the beans. Yeast cells, that grow and divide as a result of this change, produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, causing the beans to heat up. They give off a strong aroma as they reach temperatures of around 52℃.
It’s a natural chemical process and the most important stage and the aroma of chocolate starts to develop.
Fermentation has been around for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the scientist Louis Pasteur identified what was happening during the process in 1856 that it was understood and formalized.
So how did the Maya and Aztecs get it right? One theory is that they put their cacao in boxes to let it drain before they put it out to dry, perhaps unaware that this process of natural fermentation was crucial to developing the chocolate flavour. For them, draining the pulp may simply have made the drying process easier.
Anyway, criollo beans need to be fermented for only a few days. Other varieties may take up to six days. There have been experiments with different methods of fermentation but this traditional remains the most successful.
Drying the beans is less complex than fermenting, but it requires care and attention. The beans are placed in the sun, first for a gentle dry, an hour in the morning and afternoon, when they need to be turned constantly. Exposure to the sun is then increased by the day, until the beans are dried, usually over the course of a week.
At El Tesoro, the way we make sure our beans are completely dry is to weigh them, put them out in the sun and weigh them again afterwards. When they weigh the same before and after, they’re done. The optimum humidity of a dried bean is 7.5%. A bean that’s too moist won’t keep, and a bean that’s too dry will break up and be difficult to roast because the broken pieces could easily burn in the roaster.