The Chocolate Life

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Dear Fellow Chocolate Scientists
   Greetings from the Nicaraguan cacao harvest (delayed slightly due to a very rainy rainy-season) now in full swing.
    First a few basics:  the fermentation temperatures both in north and southern Nicaragua vary between 45C and 50C. Tranlsating to a max of 122F. Thus I was WRONG in my memory of seeing a 135F thermometer reading last year. This temp range must be pretty universal.
     The "white cacao" is very rare indeed, and for good reason: the pod walls are very thick, such that only small amounts of seeds can fit inside. One supposedly larger grove of these turned out not to be. So we are planting these as much as possible, including a friend of mine-- Joe Ryan-- on his small plantation on the Diamante Peninsula by Granada. Joe can afford to not worry too much about the yield.
     As has been reported in this Science section, there are odd white cacao seeds spread throughout the hybrids planted everywhere. The mandador on one farm here reports the Lagarto type has between 10 and 20 white seeds per hundred. The Lagarto is distinguished by its large and rounded bottom point, which seems to be a characteristic of criollo types. The Lagarto also has a thicker pod.

   A few weeks ago, I was offered some "cacao rojo", so-called due to the red POD color. Okay I bought it since damn near ALL the cacao pods here in Nicaragua are yellow at maturity. It turns out to taste much stronger than the Indio I'm getting. I wonder if its a sign of higher forastero content.

    I have been paying a one dollar premium for cacao Indio, an old type with what I think must be close to the original criollo taste. We loved the taste when we got it before. The farmers like the Indio because it is resistant to their great problem, moniliasis. Nevertheless, many of these old trees now sport 2 to 3 inch diameter grafts of the "trinitario acriollizado", the new high-flyer. They are always looking for higher yields, since everything here is about quantity, well fermented and dried of course. We'll see how this shakes out.

     I am taking in samples of different dried leaves to find out-- for my own amusement, and for the possible benefit of the farmers-- the relative percentages of criollo and forastero genes in the interesting older types. Testing will be done by the USDA. Some folks think that there are seven or eight different genotypes. The USDA seems to lean toward the Big Two. By this reckoning the Trinitario was the first well known hybrid, followed by thousands more.

     We are making chocolate samples in our kitchen, Cocina Marisol, all at the rate of 70% and 30% sugar, We have no melangeur but with some trickery, we are making something quite edible, and fun at a tasting.

    I love the small farmers here. We have already sampled various chocolates from various cacaos together. We'll have a party next time and raffle out pruning saws, a lovely double-bit ax, a one man crosscut saw and a few solar powered headlamps.
     The terrain of cacao country is much like my home back in Tennessee in midsummer. But without paved roads. And with plenty of howler monkeys. Photos and notes may be seen at www.SaveTheChocolate.com.

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Final Report: Saving the Chocolate trip

    In late October, 2010, I arrived at the farm of Eloy Canales, a mile north of La Patriota. Personally I wanted to understand more about the ancient cacaos-- the criollos-- and their present role in the hybrids of Nicaragua. On a practical level, my hope was that more such knowledge would benefit the cacao farmers as well as my own chocolate making.
      In several trips there we shared tales, knowledge-- how to make rustic chocolate so they all can better appreciate their own production-- and many tools including laser thermometers, grafting knives, pruning saws and other useful wonders.
     
     Consonant with our goals, we bought over a ton of sorted cacaos at premium prices ($1 over market), establishing a price for premium quality. This is a small step that has rarely been taken before in northern Nicaragua: at present all cacao is mixed and sold en masse.
     Our premiums are cacao Indio and cacao Lagarto, the latter of which contains perhaps 25% white-colored seeds that are specific to the original ancient cacao Criollo (we think).
      We located a few pure white cacao (cacao Blanco which I believe to be the original criollo) trees near La Patriota. With gifts and incentives, we encouraged the preservation of these rare trees, and carried over a hundred seeds to a cacao plantation near Granada, wherein they were planted.
      Characteristics of this white cacao  are 1] young leaves are pale green, not red; 2] the pods have 10 lobes, sometimes so flattened that they appear to be 5 lobes; 3] pod walls tend to be thicker than most

      We found a stand of perhaps 10 hectares of cacao Lagarto near Mombacho. Unfortunately this farm only ferments for three days in fermentation boxes that are rather small. Resulting cacao is definitely acidic and will need special attention to make decent chocolate of it. Yet this farm has buyers for all its cacao at a $.50/lb premium, every year for exportation to Colombia. I hope to learn how this cacao is treated, and for what use.
       I became friendly with the field manager (mandador) and advised that if this cacao were properly fermented for 5 or 6 days, it would bring at least a dollar premium and surely more in coming years. He said he would build a set of larger fermentation boxes and ferment longer next year.  

     In addition, I learned with and trained two women in our kitchen, Cocina Marisol. According to all tasters, we made the best chocolate in Nicaragua. These women are left in possession of a well-equipped kitchen and considerable knowledge.

      Pursuant to an offer from a USDA researcher, I took leaf samples from nine different trees in order to ascertain the criollo/forastero mix in each. These samples await passage through the Plant Protection and Quarantine office in Miami. 
     Gross percentages of criollo and forastero genes may only be an indicator of the mellower criollo tastes. We are aware that higher criollo gene percentages do not guarantee better tasting cacao.     
       *********************

            Cacao Raffle!!!     Proof-of-the-Chocolate Pudding
    Last fall I offered to send 2kg samples of USDA certified organic, 8-day fermented cacao Indio to 5 lucky winners of a raffle-- in return for their public assessment in the Chocolate Life. This cacao is now in my hands. I will open up my list for entries by email for two weeks, until January 26, then draw names out of a hat.

     Note: As these cacaos reach no higher than 120ºF in the fermentation process, I assume they can be properly called "raw" in their present pre-roasted state.

     If you are among the unlucky raffle losers, you may buy this cacao @ $10 /pound plus some shipping charge. Min. order 5 lbs  
      Business may be conducted with me by email:  jhepler@twlakes.net   
   








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