Visiting the CASFA cacao growers in Tapachula, Chiapas

The day after our tour of the Tapachula chocolate museum, we met Don Rubiel, a representative from CASFA, the biggest cooperative in the area.    Don Rubiel’s job is to make the rounds at the plantations to insure that the farmers are properly fermenting the beans or pruning the trees regularly.   Don Rubiel took us to meet a cacao farmer named David, who showed us around his plantation.  David owns 10 hectares of land, half of which is cacao and the other half, bananas.   It was interesting to see the difference between the two.  The banana plantation was totally uniform, growing exclusively bananas and  in contrast, the cacao plantation was more diverse, mixing cacao trees with fruit trees and flowers.  The trees provided plenty of shade and food to support the local wildlife.  David told us that parrots came to feed on the fruit in the afternoons.  There was even an eagle’s nest nearby.   Here was proof that cacao  plantations help support biodiversity.
After we got our fill (quite literally) of the plantation, we took a long hot drive to the coast to visit another plantation.  This one looked quite similar to David’s, except it had way more mosquitos!  I was really excited to see for the first time, a theobroma bicolor tree.   Bicolor is a relative of theobrama cacao but the seed does not provide anything nearly as tasty as its cousin’s.  Locals do use the fruit to prepare a drink called “pozol” which combines cacao and bicolor with corn.  It’s quite delicious if you ever get a chance to try it.  I recently learned that bicolor might benefit cacao by helping it resist disease.  The ancient Mayans may have grown them next to each other for that purpose.  Amazing!
Although the kids were quite fed up by now with our cocoa explorations, we took another long and bumpy drive to the town of San Jose, where we visited a chocolate factory.  One of the owners, Bernadina Marciel, showed us around.  There was no chocolate  being made that day because the harvest season was still a couple of months away yet it was interesting to see the equipment nevertheless.   Bernadina walked us past the roaster and the winnower,  and straight to the melanger.  We soon found out that the melanger was her domain and it is where she grinds the rough cacao paste into smoother liquor.  Next she took us  to the tempering room, where they mold the chocolate once it is out of the melanger.  Mexican chococlate is never conched, which is why it tastes so gritty.  I suppose this step isn’t necessary if you drink the chocolate like the Mexicans do. Apparently, it also retains more of its beneficial antioxidants if processed this way.
After taking a peak at the roaster and winnower which were  fairly old but looked to be in good condition, we went outside to say goodbye.   I told Bernadina that I was inspired to make chocolate after seeing her operation. I think by seeing a female chocolate maker, I felt less intimidated by the  prospect of making chocolate from the bean.

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