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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Uestro amor sabe a chocolate

Coffee and chocolate. Hospitality and laughter. I was beginning to wonder if we'd stumbled into a third-world Eden.

Chocolate. That mysterious, dark substance harvested from the Cacao plant Theobroma cacao Literally translates as "food of the Gods." .

Back in the day, Columbus thought the cacao beans were a sort of almond, and seeing how the Americans coveted them, brought some back to his King and Queen. Not having found China nor gold, he may have been a little desperate. As it was, the Spaniards had no idea what to do with the beans for decades, finding it bitter and unpalatable. That is, until Cortez witnessed King Montezuma of the Aztecs ritually drinking a spiced chocolate drink some 50 times a day, not to mention the hordes of cacao in his royal storehouses, used as currency, and figured maybe this was worth reinvestigating.

I particularly liked this tidbit from Wikipedia: "Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, who went to America in 1513 as a member of Pedrarias Avila's expedition, reports that he bought a slave for 100 cocoa beans...10 cocoa beans bought the services of a prostitute, and 4 cocoa beans got you a rabbit for dinner."

Cortez further proved his worth to history by coming up with the idea to mix sugar with the bitter chocolate and spices. Spain proved how naughty they are by keeping this secret from the rest of the world for a century, but finally the secret was out: chocolate? Delicious.

Now we were going to learn how to make it. But not the Spanish way. The Peruvian way.

First, the beans have to be fermented. Without this process there is none of that wonderful chocolate flavor. When there are lots of pods, the beans and the marshmallow-y sticky pulp are piled together in large containers sealed with banana leaves. When there are few, then a liter water bottle with the lid cut off and a plastic bag to allow for expansion of gases serves just fine.

During the next  days the mixture is occasionally stirred and the fermented alcohol converts to acetic acid, which penetrates the bean, allowing the chocolate flavors to form and reducing bitterness. How long it needs to ferment depends on the type of cacao. Then the beans are spread out to dry and are ready to be roasted.

This is where we got to join the fun. Juan, smiling as always, built a hot little fire outside, blowing on it through a metal tube and plunking the cacao beans into a blackened iron pot above the flames.

Where they had to be stirred and stirred...and stirred some more with a stick, carefully distributing the heat. I found the stirring hypnotic, and the scent that rose from the pot...rich, smokey, faintly chocolatey.

We took turns stirring the beans, conscious that time was running out. Somewhere along that long road our bus was trundling along and whenever it arrived, we would have to leave. Juan watched over us, obviously happy to be alive and doing what he does.

The oil in the beans rose to the surface and they became shiny, through some mysterious alchemy Juan knew exactly when to remove them from the heat and put them into a enamel bowl for me to stir and stir some more with another stick, cooling them gradually and evenly, and loosening the outer husk of each bean.  

Now it was my job to winnow and husk. I had no idea at the time that that's what it as called, as Juan speaks as much English as I speak Spanish (possibly less), but that didn't matter. He showed me to stir, then taking the still-burning hot beans between thumb and forefinger, rub until the papery husk popped and came off, revealing the chocolate version of gold inside.

My hands are not those of a farmer, and my fingertips were smarting and singed, but I was having the time of my life.

Now we were really in business. Don't let the bus come yet, we implored the Gods, not yet.

Mike and Juan  and I had a little party, working together in the sunshine to get the outsides off the beans. As soon as that was done, Juan hustled us over to a grinder, bolted firmly to a workbench. A handful of cacao beans went into the top and grind grind grind came out

recognisably chocolate! It was arduous work, grinding those nibs. Juan is apparently a strong little fellow, as he neither grunted nor strained when he demonstrated how it was done.

Mike is a big guy, no weakling he, but he was working hard at the thing, turning the crank and trying to keep it moving; momentum was key. I gave it a try and surrendered it back quickly enough.

Finally we had a beautiful plate of pure cocoa paste that smelled like pure heaven.

Julia formed it into a perfect glossy dome and then offered to make us drinking chocolate, and would we like it made the traditional way, with water, or perhaps we would like milk instead?

We went hard core, make it with water, we said, to her approval.

Stay away, bus, stay away.

The watched pot boiled on the wood-fueled stone stovetop, Julia stirring carefully, adding sugar,

then poured it back and forth between two containers, and back and forth again to make it foamy, just as the Aztecs and Mayans did hundreds of years ago.

The moment of truth. Julia handed up the cups almost reverently, and in that spirit, we took slow, careful first sips.

Oh, wow.

Incan hot chocolate is chocolatey and surprisingly nutty and elemental in some way. It was similar in texture and experience to a really good cup of espresso. There was a smoothness and a grittiness that was hard to define. I decided not to worry about it and let the moment be what it was; once in a lifetime.

and then the bus came, and we had to scramble.

We threw back the last of the hot chocolate, Julia pressing a package of the rest of the paste, wrapped in plastic bags and hardening as it cooled, into our hands, we hugging the family in hurried good-byes with choked throats and inadequate graciases, running with our backpacks up the dusty road where the minibus chugged impatiently, Laura reassuring the driver that si, si, we were coming.

Chiquita the dog looked after us and went back to lie down among the drying coffee beans.

The family had waved adios, adios, and went back to their lives. Back to their next guests, back to the work at hand.

Monica, Juan, Miguel and Julia

We clambered into our seats, with apologetic glances at the other passengers on the bus. The taste of chocolate was still on our lips, as was the sadness and regret of travelers; our brief time with this magical family was over.


  1. Wow. What an experience. I love your outlook and appreciation for things like this. Makes reading your blogs a joy. And your photos of the people you are around make them feel beautiful and sacred. As always, I wish I could travel with you. But these blog entries are just as good. Thank you, lady.

  2. What Viola said. I'm not sure how I managed to miss this post before, especially since it's about CHOCOLATE! I'm dying to know, what did you do with the paste after? Did you bring it back with you? Any trouble in customs? Inquiring minds want to know!