I spent this past January in Costa Rica, driving around the country in search of wildlife and indigenous culture. One of the best things I did during my trip was make traditional chocolate– it was so delicious the first time I decided to do it again.
So I made chocolate twice– once with members of the Teribe tribe near Cahuita, and another time with the Bribri trive in Kekoldi. The experiences were pretty different, I’d honestly recommend doing them both if you like chocolate as much as I do!
Museo del Cacao
The Museo del Cacao is conveniently located on the road between Limon and Puerto Viejo, which is how I found it. I decided to go, on a whim, and was able to join an English language tour almost immediately.
My guide, Ilmar, explained his Teribe and Gnabes heritage, nations which are split between Panama and Costa Rica. The tribes are culturally very different, and their view on cacao differs as well. The Bribri and Gnabe peoples associate cacao with spirituality, while the Teribe do not: they view it as a medicinal plant. It is also offer it to guests as a greeting. My guide told me that his grandmother always had a hot chocolate waiting for him!
We walked through the plantation, looking for ripe cacao pods. Unlike a typical American farm, with neat rows of one crop, the plantation was more of a controlled forest, with dense foliage, and a mix of different trees. By having mixed crops, the cacao plants are less susceptible to disease, and the soil is not stripped of nutrients. Still, the farmhands have to watch out for monkeys, which feast on ripe cacao pods!
There are three varieties of cacao that the Museo grows: Crioli, Foresteros, and hybrid. The different varieties taste differently and the pods are different colors. Foresteros is more commonly used commercially because it grows more quickly, though Crioli cacao is less bitter.
This is what a ripe cacao pod looks like. Inside, it’s white and sort of slimy, like a guanabana. The beans are a purplish color and can be eaten raw.. though they taste a bit strange. I dare you to try one!
The beans are left out to ferment and sun-dry for a week, which is when they become brown and start tasting like chocolate.
After they have dried, the beans are toasted, ground, toasted again, and mixed with hot water. Depending on how much water you add, you can create hot chocolate, or chocolate paste.
We made chocolate paste as the Teribe people do traditionally. It had an intense dark and bitter flavor, unlike any ‘100% dark’ chocolate I’d had before. This is the true 100%! It was thick and chewy, even more so than peanut butter.
It was served to me on a banana leaf with black pepper, chiles, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric and bananas on the side all of which are native to the region. The Teribe people mix add different spices to prevent different ailments and to balance the flavor. The best kind of medicine, Ilmar told me, is preventative medicine– a chocolate a day keeps the doctor away!
We then added sugar and vanilla and more water to create a kind of chocolate more similar to what the Spanish would’ve created in the 1700s.
Milk chocolate bars did not exist until the 1850s, when Swiss chocolatiers invented powdered milk. Milk chocolate soon became popularly consumed in Europe and spread to the rest of the world. The museum had some interesting chocolate-making artifacts as well as vintage candy-shop signs from around the world. I wish traditional chocolate was as popular, I can’t find anything like this back home!
Eager to try traditional chocolate again, I drove to Kekoldi, a small Bribri town. There, I was surprised to see humble thatched roof homes and meet friendly people — very different from Limon or San Jose.
The Bribri are known for their rich ‘drinking chocolate’, and my guide, Keysh, was very passionate about it. Cacao, he explained, is deeply intertwined with Bribri culture, and is a central part of an awa’s (or healer/doctor’s) practice. (Note that the word ‘shaman’ is considered offensive.)
‘Chocolate’, he said, is an accidental name given to cacao by the Spanish. ‘Cha co la te’ in the Bribri language means, ‘Careful, it’s hot!’. In Bribri, chocolate is called ‘shruska’ or ‘sruba’ depending on whether it’s solid or liquid.
After walking through the picking and drying process again, I was shown how to grind/roll the toasted beans into powder on a large stone.
Keysh mixed the ground powder with whole cinnamon leaves, nutmeg and hot water, and then stirred it together with a ‘jungle blender’– a long thin stick.
We caramelized ‘baby’ bananas on the fire, their sweetness complimented the spiced drinking chocolate, or sruba. It was rich and hot– something I’d want to drink on a cold New York day!
After we finished the chocolate, Keysh showed me how to shoot blow-darts, and some of the poison dart frogs his family kept in a large natural enclosure. That was an unexpected plus, not part of the usual tour.
The chocolate tour at Kekoldi was definitely a more traditional experience, but less informative. I was happy to have done both, in order to try chocolate different ways. It was great to learn about the tribal cultures from two different guides, and gain a deeper understanding of what chocolate means to these peoples. It’s more than just candy here in Costa Rica!
Both places are great spots for tours, so if you’re a chocolate lover like me, just do both! The tours were both roughly 2.5 hours each and 10,000 colones ($15 USD).
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