Monday 6 March 2023 – All we had to do today was to get from Puerto Viejo to Aquiares, a three-and-a-half hour drive – eventually. We had, however, an intriguing break to the journey; a visit to the Nortico Cacao Farm, near Turrialba. “Mmmmm”, we thought. “Chocolate”, we thought. How little we knew….
Breakfast at the villas was as good as it had been the previous day, and we were able to get on the road in good time, but in very wet and murky conditions. The drive was fundamentally OK, but took us back to the ghastliness that is Route 32. Yes; the one with the roadworks, which is even less charismatic in the rain. It’s obviously an important route, since it leads from Limón, a major port, to San José, the capital.
The bit we had to do was from Limón to Siquirres (a town we childishly kept calling Squirrels)
which is the section with the roadworks. And the ghastly industrial bits
and, erm, Liverpool.
Seems strange to find such a famous UK place name in Costa Rica.
We ground it out without serious incident and then turned off in the direction of Turrialba, at which point it was clear that (a) we were going into the mountains, and (b) the mountains were largely shrouded in cloud.
Waze led us along yet another daunting path, with one tense moment involving someone coming the other way fortunately resolved in our favour, to arrive at Nortico
slightly early for lunch. This enabled a reasonably well-needed bathroom break, which gave me the first insight that the visit here was not going to be dull. This plaque was on the wall of the loo.
We met Aldo, the Tico part of “Nortico”. His wife, Ann-Elin, is Norwegian, which explains the other part. From the start it was clear that his passion and knowledge of his specialist subject and his joy at communicating it matched and even exceeded that of Miguel “Monkey” at Tortuga Lodge. He made us feel at ease, arranged coffee for us, prepared in a very traditional way,
gave us chocolate and then provided lunch (chicken, rice and beans!) before two other couples (one French, one German) turned up for the main event – a deep, swift and brain-boggling immersion into the complexities of cacao, which I had thought was a pretty straightforward fruit with a pretty well-understood story. How wrong I was….
Aldo presided over a hugely entertaining session of discussion, education and interaction
on the general subject of cacao: its history (found first in Amazonia, first cultivated in Mexico and Mesoamerica); which countries you can find it in (all around the equator); which country produces the most (Ivory Coast, though not in a sustainable way); and its quality and varieties (in vast numbers). This was where we began to understand the complexities around cacao – there are an enormous number of varieties, only 5% of which are of top quality – “fine flavour”. This 5% excludes all of the bulk cacao production, which therefore means any chocolate from any chocolate maker you’ve ever heard of. Except maybe one or two.
Cacao and the production of chocolate has many similarities with the complexities of grape varieties and wine. There are many, many varieties of grape, there are many sorts of wine, but only a very small percentage of wines could be described as fine wine. Much knowledge of grape cultivation and vinification is needed to produce the top quality wines and the same is true for cacao and chocolate. The Nortico Farm has settled on just eight varieties of cacao to cultivate and use for chocolate. They have been carefully selected not only for their individual aroma and taste characteristics, but also because they will not cross-pollinate, so each variety remains pure. It’s a small operation – just four hectares – but operated with loving attention to detail in the growing, picking and processing of cacao into the various types of chocolate that Nortico sells.
Whilst Aldo was explaining all of this, he was also passing round samples of the various types of chocolate for the six of us to taste. He introduced Anna-Laura to us, the third person in the business beside Aldo and Ann-Elin
and Anna-Laura had the pleasure of taking us out into the rain to explain about growing and processing cacao.
“Sistema Mixto” involved not growing cacao plants intensively, but interspersed with banana plants which provide necessary shade for the cacao plants, extra nutrients in the soil and produce to sell whilst waiting for the cacao plants to mature.
The cacao fruits come in a variety of colours
and the colours depict either the variety of cacao or the maturity of each fruit. So you kind of have to know what you’re doing when picking – fruits don’t all mature at the same time, so those on the same branch will be at differing stages of growth.
We’d been to a chocolate factory elsewhere so we were familiar with the structure of the fruit – a shell, with seeds inside, each coated with a pulp (surprisingly sweet-tasting).
Once picked, the seeds and pulp are put into a kind of solera fermenting system;
they start at the top and progress, over the course of a couple of days, down to the bottom, with fermentation being sped along by the sweetness of the pulp. The resulting seeds are then spread out to dry, if possible in the heat of the sun
or, if wet, assisted (in this case by a solar-power driven heater)
and sorted (by hand!) to pick out and discard the seeds which have not fermented properly and which will not contribute to fine chocolate.
Whilst Anna-Laura was explaining this, Aldo was setting up the next phase of the experience. He equipped everyone with some dried seeds
which were still covered in in a shell-like skin which had to be split off.
The bowl contains the beans, or nibs, which go on to be the basis for chocolate – the skins or shells can be used for compost.
Then the nibs have to be ground into a paste.
This paste has the cacao butter in it which many manufacturers actually extract at this point and replace with something like palm oil; cacao butter is a valuable product which can be profitably sold elsewhere, for example into the cosmetics industry. This is another thing that marks out fine chocolate from the rabble that you and I normally buy and eat.
Then we each took our portion of paste and added ingredients to taste – milk (powdered milk only, the fat in liquid milk interferes with the final taste), sugar, ginger, salt, cinnamon and so forth, plus water
such that you end up with a lovely, flavoursome ball of your own, private and unique blend of chocolate.
Guess which bundle is Jane’s and which is mine….
Obviously the hand-ground paste we were using was much coarser and the process much simplified over their actual manufacture, but the principles are the same.
The whole process was accompanied by much laughter to leaven the serious messages about quality of raw materials and of processing to produce something very fine. The Nortico products are not available in your average shop; maybe a gourmet market in Costa Rica might stock their product and possibly a restaurant or two. Aldo gave us an opportunity to buy some, obvs,
and so we did, including some nibs, which will go very nicely on the breakfast muesli.
The whole session was massively educational, very thought-provoking and hugely enjoyable, It’s a joy to see someone in action with such a passion and an ability to communicate it. We left with several bars of chocolate and brains spinning with the enormous amount of information that Aldo had tried to inject into them.
It was time to get back on the road, for a short drive to our final destination – Casa Hacienda La Esperanza in Aquiares, where we stay for a couple of nights. The Hacienda is a refurbished farmhouse originally over 100 years old, and is a lovely place
with a fine garden
and a terrace where we took coffee, as prepared and dispensed in a very pleasing manner.
Our room is, engagingly, called Toucan.
We had a fine dinner – tuna steak with vegetables and yuca – before settling in for the night.
The morrow offers the prospect of an education experience similar to today’s in that I suspect that we’ll learn huge amounts about a product which is a great deal more complex and nuanced than we could have possibly expected. So come back soon and find out more, eh?