Today wasn't a super early start, which was nice but I find myself often up by 6:30am (what's up with that, considering the DR is an hour ahead). Despite haivng a good nights sleep, I'm still pretty tired today.
As been our pattern these past few days it was another day on the bus with our fantastic driver, Wally. He's been our driver since Tuesday and he's got a nice, air conditioned bus with curtians on the windows. He obviously takes pride in his bus. We headed back through Consuelo again and up into the mountains to Hato Mayor.
Cacao Co-Operative in Hato Mayor
In the town of Hato Mayor we got off the bus and were loaded onto the back of a truck where we stood on the fenced-in bed for the ride. Today was a day for us to learn, instead of witnessing the poor living conditions in the slums or Batays. The focus of today was to learn about Fair Trade and Cocoa. First we went to Conocado, one of the fair trade Cacao Co-Operatives. We were welcomed by our chocolate tour guide who served us real hot chocolate (its made from chocolate tablets melted in milk, not the powder we get here in North America), and a roll. I saw some of our Dominican guides dipping their roll in the hot chocolate, quite good! Our guide talked to us about the Cacao co-operative system and how it works.
Our Chocolate Guide
After the brief talk we were taken on a tour of the co-op facilities. We were shown the raw cacao beans (nothing like I thought it looked) and how its fermented in a three step process then dried. That's when it looks like what we expect it to look like, a nice dark bean.
Recently picked beans being loaded into fermenting bins
Recently harvested Cacao Beans
Cacao Beans being moved to a lower fermenting bin
First the harvested beans (which were harvested no more than six hours ago) are loaded into a large wooden box which when closed is air tight. The beans stay here for the next 24 hours to ferment (and the area does smell like alcohol). I was given one of the raw beans to taste/suck on, its almost sweet like a grape (its slimy). After the beans have been in the top box for 24 hours, it is opened at the bottom front and the beans are moved down a level into a second, lower box. Through this process the beans are turned, the ones that were on the bottom are now on the top. The cacao now stays in this box for 48 hours. From the second box, it goes into the final, and lowest box using the same process turning the beans. The beans stay in this box for another 48 hours, the fermenting process takes a full 5 days. After the 5-day process the beans are ready to be dried and are starting to look like the beans we picture.
Beans drying in a greenhouse
Beans being dried by wood fire
Dried Cacao Beans
The drying process happens in two different ways. Either it is laid out in long greenhouse-like structures, and the sun and heat does the job. Or they are loaded into a big tumbler and is dried by wood heat.
Cacao grows in a pod on a tree
From the co-op we climbed back into the truck and headed further into the mountains. The vistas were just amazing, my camera just couldn't do nature justice. The mountains were green and alive! It was here in the mountains where we saw our first cacao tree! I never knew that cacao grows on trees! Its a squash-like pod that grows out of the side of the trunk of the tree, the beans are inside. The pods are harvested when they're orange.
Poverty is everywhere in the Dominican Republic
Despite the beauty of the mountains, the poverty was still evident.
Chocolate Education Center
Mixing cacao beans, sugar and yeast in water to make Cacao Wine
Mioced, helping to model the glass of wine
Our next stop was at a chocolate education center run by an association of women. First we were shown how wine is made from Cacao, which we then got to sample. It pretty much smelt and tasted like very strong alcohol, not like chocolate.
Inside of a Cacao pod where the beans are found
Marmalade made from the cacao heart
The next process we were shown is how they make a marmalade from cacao. When the pod is cut open and the beans are removed, there is an inner fiberous stem which they call the "heart". The heart is removed and boiled with sugar, it is strained repeatedly. We also got to try the marmalade, again not chocolate-like. Its supposed to be great on cookies or toast.
Beans being pounded to a paste to make cacao powder that we bake with
The final process we were shown was how cacao is made into the powdered cocoa we're familiar with and use for baking. First the beans are taosted in a pan over a wood fire (this is the traditional method). The beans are then peeled and put into a large wooden mortar and pestle. The beans are pounded until they turn into a paste that has a consistancy/texture of coffee grounds. At this point sugar is added and thoroughly mixed into the crushed cacao. The mixture is rolled into balls and dried. Once dry, the ball is grated into the powder we're familiar with.
Then the ladies had a lovely lunch prepared for us! The meal consisted of moro (rice and beans), spaghetti, fried chicken, salad (their idea of salad), fruit and rolls. This was served with passionfruit juice, water and coffee. The food was excellent. After lunch we had some time to let loose, shop, relax. The kids had a great game of basketball.
It was time to get back in the truck again, and we headed deeper into the mountains. We stopped at a quiet spot, the grounds were manicured and it looked like there was a little chapel. Here, we were told to find a spot and we were to sit in silence for an hour. We could use this time to write in our journals, think about the last few days, or meditate. I was just astounded by the beauty of the mountains! I took the time to write in my journal and just enjoyed the beauty (except for some sort of bug that was biting me!). After our hour, it was back in the truck and back to the bus.