This is a long blog. It covers my trip to the Dominican Republic and has loads of photos. You've been warned!
One of my more important origins I am able to purchase beans from is the Zorzal Plantation in the Dominican republic. This 1200 acre farm/preserve was purchased a few years ago by a few intrepid organizations that allowed it to become a bird sanctuary, primarily for the Bicknells Thrush, a migratory bird endangered by habitat loss. This area allows it a place to thrive.
It is a restored jungle that was for a very long time dedicated to cattle. The proprietor of the preserve is Chuck Kerchner, he was our host and tour guide for the week. We started at the fermenting facility.
That's Chuck on the right. Welcoming us to his farm. The boxes with number behind him are filled with beans in different stages of ferment.
On the right is Adolfo Ramirez, he is our tour guide on and off the farm especially when Chuck could not be around, explaining how the farm works and the record keeping that comes with creating a precision product.
The temperature of the beans are closely monitored throughout the cycle. Fermentation can be very imprecise so important to keep track. The flavor we attribute to a particular bean is dependent on a good quality ferment. Too short and they'll be underdeveloped too long and it begins to rot.
This is Yinehidy Morales (jee-nay-dee) an up and coming chocolate maker from Canada, but originally from the Dominican Republic, she was our unofficial translator and cultural ambassador. Here she is paying attention to the off-gassing of the beans as they are fermenting. Very high in Vinegars at this stage, enough to take your breath away.
Another participant on this tour was Marceau, with Manoa Chocolate out of Hawaii, he's cleaning out the remnants of the bin to move it into another stage of ferment. There are 4 boxes total that the beans move through. Starting at the top with fresh beans and then day by day the beans move to lower boxes in order to turn them so there is as even as a ferment as possible.
Fermenting beans covered by burlap to hold the heat in. Sometimes banana leaves are used but it takes a lot of leaves and they just don't have enough banana trees growing to make it possible.
The view from the top of the 4 tier system. The wood is imported pine.
Scott from Ritual Chocolate out of Utah is seen here moving the beans from a top box to a lower box. The beans become very compact and difficult to move.
John Lankford, chief chocolate maker for Ritual Chocolate in Utah, and Yinehidy examine the underside of the ferment boxes. the pipes are in place to drain off the excess vinegar and alcohols that come from the fermentation process. Typically they are drained to the soil, but this method allows them to capture for use as a beverage at times.
The jungle was all around us. After the Fermentation tour we headed to lots 1 and 2 of the farm, these are older trees, planted 15-20 years prior. Good selection of trees, and all on hillsides, with lots of intercropping.
The view from the top of the ridge showcases the ability for the land to come back. It's hard to see in this photo, but in the upper left corner is a plot of land free of trees that has been created for cattle. Just a few years ago this whole area in view was denuded and used for grazing. Through extensive effort and the help of several organizations, it's become a refuge for the migratory and native bird species.
We descended into the jungle, where the light is dimmer with all of the over-story, Pods were plucked carefully from a few trees to show us thew differences in sizes, shapes, colors and taste. I couldn't tell you what each one tastes like but they all varied in fruitiness with degrees of sour notes. Lemon was a common note.
Machetes are used for so many purposes. Pruning and reducing undergrowth are two of the heaviest activities. With thousands of trees, Cacao farming is very labor intensive. There are no machines that can do this work. Using a machete to chop into the fruit allows it to be opened easily, but it's a skill that requires restraint because if you cut too deep you'll damage a few beans. Each pod holds 40-60 beans. And each bean is about a gram in dried weight, which means that for the traditional 2 oz chocolate bar it takes about a single pod to make a bar. Every bean matters.
These two were with us at the farm the whole time (I'm sorry I forget their names) and were great guys with a vast amount of knowledge on cacao and knowing when to harvest, when to prune, disease identification and general forest care.
Opening the pods to reveal the beans
Eating cacao from the pod was my favorite activity. Multiple pods were broken open and what didn't get eaten was tossed to the jungle floor. They quickly realized that I would eat it all and just hand me the pods after everyone else stopped. I was a little worried that I might eat too much and get sick, but it never happened so I kept up my delicious snacking.
The thing about eating cacao is that to make chocolate we take the bean and ferment it, dry it and I roast it and grind it. To eat it raw in the jungle you break open a pod, scoop out a seed at a time that is covered in a mucilage of white and suck on the pulp till you've gotten as much as you can, then spit it out the bean to the jungle floor and get another. The seeds are edible at any point but they are very green tasting and does not compare to the pulp. I ate a few seeds but stopped because they would take away from the enjoyment of the pulp. They do NOT taste like chocolate.
Discarded pods, left to compost into the soil.
Cacao is an interesting tree in that the pod only grows on the main trunk. Not on the branches.
I was really hoping to spend a lot of time photographing the flowers of the cacao tree, but there were very few out.
Cacao flowers, of which there can be thousands, once pollinated, will beginning to grow fruit. The tree decides at some point how many pods will grow to full maturity and let the others wither and die. It's not unusual to see a tree with lots of blacked withered tiny pods that were suddenly cut off from nutrients. The farmer will leave the dead pods alone out of concern that by disturbing the pod could damage it's ability to grow a pod there in the future.
A fully ripened pod.Ready for ferment.
My fellow tour buddies asking questions of the farmers.
This pod was interesting. In the world of cacao, there is the fabled Crilillo bean, It is a white bean, known for it's superior flavor. There are a few farmers that specialize in these genetics.
Once the beans are stripped out of the pod this is left behind. It's called an umbilicus. Because it's the tool that feeds the beans the nutrients while growing inside the pod.
Close up of the Crilillo bean
Litter of the discarded pods were everywhere. Given jungle humidity and insect life it breaks down pretty quickly.
This was my favorite tree.
Bees! They had a few hives on the plantation.
Once the beans are fully fermented they are turned out to dry on racks with metal screened bottoms for a fast dry. They are kept permanently covered from the rains. they'll stay here long enough to dry to a very low moisture content then bagged.
Chuck checking the beans for damage, and doneness.
A worker turning the beans, very hard work, we tried. I would fail at this.
Sacks of beans ready to be sealed.
Front view of the drying areas.
Notice the design of the huts, warm/moist air is allowed to leave and the clear panels allow the sun to heat the area up promoting drying.
In the warehouse that was on property, the bags are weighed and sorted based on who they are going to. Not every bean makes it out to premium production facilities. The lower quality beans are sold to companies who do not care about flavor profiles. They just want chocolate.
Our walk back to the house.
The house where we stayed the night. very buggy, very cozy. very friendly. First time I've slept under mosquito netting. I was grateful for it. Earlier in the day we took a trip to the river and splashed around a little pool. It was bucolic. It's also where I was quickly targeted by no-see-ums. But did not realize it till several days later. Itchy little bastards.
We spent our evening till late under the mango tree, talking and telling stories. It was a great group of people I could not have asked for better tour partners.
Our little team, the local caretakers, Manoa Chocolate and Ritual Chocolate with Yinehidy and myself as the smaller of the chocolate makers.
The obligatory self portrait in front of the gate to prove I really went there.
Final beach dinner in Cabarete, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.