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A Tour Of A Costa Rican Chocolate Farm

Alexander Stein

In Costa Rica this summer, after two idyllic weeks of traipsing through cloud forests and relaxing on warm beaches, I still hadn’t had the chance to tour a chocolate farm. This had definitely been a priority on my pre-trip agenda, but I had procrastinated … mostly because I’d hyped the experience up so much in my head, I was afraid of disappointment. 

You see, chocolate and I have a history. It’s a hard thing to admit because honestly a devotion to chocolate is so cliché. And yet, there it is. I adore dark chocolate like Penelope loved Odysseus … beyond rationality, with unhealthy boundaries and unreasonable expectations. Apparently, at my core I am cliché. Or maybe I am dark chocolate down there, because I’ve actually eaten enough of it for that to happen.

So I wanted to see where it came from … the chocolate, I mean. Two days before we were due back at the airport I got word that an appointment had finally come through, and we were expected at La Iguana Chocolate Farm at 10 am the following morning. So, after two and a half hours across rather treacherous roads, several dicey bridges, one of which I literally got out of the car and jumped on before we crossed, we arrived.

La Iguana is a small-scale family-run farm on the southwest side of Costa Rica. Jorge, our guide, grew up on the farm, and, despite being surprisingly thin for someone who works all day around the food of the gods, he was intimately familiar with the chemistry and artistry behind creating a really good bar of chocolate. Over the next four hours, he walked us through the whole process, from flowering plant, to harvest, drying and fermenting the seeds, hulling, grinding, refining, and tasting the final product.

Here are a few insights I picked up:

  • First, chocolate is a plant. Of course I knew that in theory. But it’s an actual plant, like zucchini is a plant. That seemed so weird to me, to see it growing with green leaves, like it had vitamins or something. The part we eventually eat is a product of the tree that grows in pod-like fruits. The fresh seed is covered in a white pulpy layer, when it first comes out of the pod, that you can actually eat. It tastes slightly citrusy and only mildly sweet. It’s just okay.
  • Next, and this is fairly mind-blowing … chocolate is pollinated by mosquitos, according to the guide. I found out later that, with his limited English, he probably meant the biting fly ceratopogonidae (sara-topo-ghan-uh-dee). No bigger than the size of a pinhead, these insects are the only creatures that can work their way into the intricate cacao flowers to pollinate them. Without these biting flies there would be no chocolate! Let that sink in.
  • Finally. Milk chocolate is a farce. Jorge laughed out loud at all you milk chocolate lovers. Most milk chocolate, according to him, is brown candy. It doesn’t contain enough cocoa to actually be considered chocolate. But I quickly dismounted my high horse when I found out that white chocolate is actually chocolate. That was news to me.

After the cacao seed is fermented, dried and roasted, it is ground and pressed into several different products. Shells are separated from the nibs and discarded. Nibs are ground finely into a mass that yields two products: cocoa powder and cocoa butter. White chocolate … real white chocolate that is, is made from sweetened cocoa butter and milk powder.
And in case you didn’t catch it, it’s called cacao on the tree, cocoa after it’s fermented and ground, and chocolate after it is mixed with milk powder and a fat of some kind.

So now that you know, you too can sound like a cliché chocolate snob. And I say there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it means people try and impress you with their high-quality chocolate.

And by the way, you may want to swing by USU’s new chocolate factory, or check out their comprehensive website, and meet your own Jorge to walk you through the ins and outs of the alchemy of chocolate production.