As I tentatively sip a watery concoction of cacao, almonds and chili, the possibility that this bitter-spicy beverage is even a form of chocolate seems remote, let alone that under my crinkled nose froths the ancient precursor to all chocolate as we know and love it.
But history is a lot like taste — surprising, born of the bitter stuff and prone to unlikely combinations. Chocolate makes a great case study. While the chocolate we know today is more closely associated with European machines, West African soils and global appetites, the origins of cacao are in preColombian Latin America, where it has been grown, revered and served unsweetened for at least a millennium.
On a recent day at Sibú Chocolate, an artesanal chocolatier and cafeteria located a short drive from Academia Tica Coronado, most of us discretely push aside the little cups filled with Montezuma’s spicy recipe for orgiastic fortitude, eyes fastening instead on a selection of truffles, each like a tiny sculpture molded to exacting specifications artfully arranged on gleaming white plates.
But there is to be no gobbling of the gourmet chocolate on this tour. Restraint reigns as we listen to Julio Fernandez, co-founder of Sibú and Costa Rican historian, deliver an in-depth lecture. He prompts us to try each truffle as his story touches upon its origins. We are thousands of years into the story of chocolate before a Dutch chemist figures out how to produce it in solid form, like those so temptingly arranged on the table before us. Fernandez enlivens this long story with artifacts arranged all over Sibú’s garden cafeteria: from sticks and stone mortars to baroque oil paintings, WWII pin-ups and some chocolate-flavored product picked up at a local supermarket, for strictly anthropological purposes, of course.
“This is not chocolate,” Fernandez shakes his head disapprovingly as he holds up the plastic bag. This gesture becomes more frequent as his narration moves into the 20th century, when global demand turned more and more chocolate into product.
Founded by Fernandez and his American partner George Soriano, Sibú goes against this grain. “The (Sibu) concept is bean-to-gourmet-bar, and it has quite a few benefits. With higher-quality, handmade cacao, Soriano says he can ask a higher price and fairly pay farmers,” explained a recent report in the Tico Times.
The eight different varieties of chocolate we try during the tour all come from cacao beans grown at a single organic plantation on the Caribbean coast. The aim is to be uniquely sustainable while crafting flavors that are uniquely Costa Rican. Fernandez says Tico chocolate has a bolder, more bitter taste than African chocolate, though it is less resistant to pests. Despite their cutesy names, like “frosty pod rot” or “witch broom,” certain molds have led to the near collapse of the cacao industry in Costa Rica over the last thirty years, causing farmers to turn to livestock raising and other forms of agriculture, accelerating deforestation. (Cacao thrives in the shade and can be grown in a biologically diverse ecosystem, though some research suggests that these benefits can be relatively short-lived when coupled with pressure to produce high yields every season.)
In 1975, three years before the first frosty pod rot epidemics wiped out whole plantations on the Pacific Coast, Costa Rica produced nearly 7,000 tons of cacao beans. By 2012, that had dropped to just 700 tons, a 90% decrease. Meanwhile, production in West Africa’s Cote D’Ivoire increased a staggering 575 percent during the same 37-year period, according to statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Administration. The human cost accompanying Africa’s cacao boom is incalculable, with nearly 820,000 child laborers working on Cote D’Ivoire cacao plantations.
-Emily Jo Cureton