“This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.” – Anonymous Conqueror 1556
A cacao farm invokes images of chocolate colored fruit dripping from trees arranged in rows for harvest to supply the world’s addition to chocolate. This image could not be farther from our experience on Don Olivo’s cacao farm (click here) in La Fortuna Costa Rica. Aside from his welcoming nature, Don Olivo’s family is passionate about cacao growing and education. Meticulously walking through the cacao growing and harvesting process, they welcomed our family into their world.
The first realization: Cacao grows best in the shade. Rambutan fruit trees shade the cacao while it grows throughout the farm. The cacao grows in pods, and the fruit inside is bitter and tart.
Monkeys like the exterior and spit out the seeds which help the cacao plant germinate across the forest under shady trees where monkeys lounge and eat in the safety of altitude. Without letting monkeys get their fill, they harvest the fruit inside the pods and pack them into buckets to let them ferment. This fermentation kills the germinating seed and develops yeasts that add to the flavor. The exterior rots away leaving the nut. The nuts are then spread out in a small greenhouse and allowed to sun dry in tropical heat for a few days. The nuts are then roasted, which reduces acidic compounds and further develops a complex flavor.
Lastly the nuts shells are cracked and winnowed so just the nut flesh is ground or double-ground into powder using an old fashioned coffee grounder.
The process is enchanting and the kids enjoyed each step, tasting along the way, ramping up to the climax of fresh ground cacao nut mixed with warm milk and cane juice for a rich cup of chocolate sludge. A delicious flavor unlike anything found in any coffee shop in the United States. I first had a cup of this in Guatemala eight years earlier and have pined for it ever since.
Don Olivo grows over 50 different species of plants they harvest. From rambutan, and cacao, to sugar cane, mint, vanilla, peppers, papaya, and host of other herbs and spices, all grow harmoniously. This is a bio-intensive farming model (click here). The farm was a fraction of the size of agricultural models where I grew up. The diversity of plant life attract a rich cadre of insects and animals that create a natural homeostatic biome not requiring pesticides and management like those at large scale US farms. Profitable, sustainable, and good for the environment, Don Olivo’s provides a model for farming, used for a long time in Costa Rica, that is catching on in other parts of the world.
The tour lasted only two hours, but I drove back the next day to purchase a kilo of fresh ground cacao. It took me over a year to use it up, making sludge coco, and cacao fudge. It was a perfect experience for the whole family.