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.

Visiting Don Isidro’s Cacao Farm in Huehuetan, Chiapas


A young boy climbs a cacao tree to pick a ripe pod for us!


On Saturday we met a cacao farmer down here in Soconusco, Chiapas, named Don Isidro.  He took us to meet his family and have dinner with them.  The day started by meeting him at a highway gas station.  Since we were late, he had been waiting at least an hour in the stifling heat. He was pretty  cool about it though, and invited us to come to his house and farm where he grew cacao.  First we went fishing! Don Isidro wanted to feed us fresh fish, so he took us to a talapia farm where a teenage boy dragged nets across a pond to scoop out fish.  Once we had the fish(it took over an hour to find the boy and to get the right sized fish), we drove to his farm which was located at the very end of a dirt road that led through cacao and mango trees.   Don Isidro grows both of those as well as coffee, which he told us, is his most profitable crop.

He showed us his cacao, which wasn’t ready to harvest yet.  The peak harvest season in Chiapas is June where the pods turn bright yellow and are ready to be cut from the tree.   The pods we saw were still green, although when we tasted them fresh, they were already sweet and delicious.

He then invited us into his house to meet his wife, Herminia and his six children.  It was hard to keep track of all the kids because four of them are girls and seemingly close in age.  Darius made an interesting observation.  He said that if you have 6 kids back home, they make a TV show about it, but here it’s quite normal.  I explained that farmers generally have more kids so they can help around the farm.

After a few glasses of lemonade, Don Isidro showed us where he dried the cacao.  We walked up several flights of stairs to the top floor with the best view.  He preferred to dry the beans there, away from the chickens and the dogs (for obvious reasons), but it was also a pain to bring the beans downstairs every time it rained.  He told us that his wife and daughters did most of the drying work and they also sorted through the beans picking out the bad ones.  He still had some beans from the previous harvest in September and he showed us the difference between well fermented and poorly fermented beans.  The well fermented ones had cracks in them and there was a difference in colour, too, although Cyrus and I couldn’t quite understand what that difference was.  My Spanish is pretty much non existent and Cyrus struggles with the technical terms.

It was getting quite dark now and the kids were bored and hungry.  Luckily dinner was ready.   Herminia cooked us a wonderful fish dinner.  One for each of us!  They declined to join us for dinner because they had friends visiting later and wanted to eat with them.  I felt bad eating my whole fish in front of the family, but I was starving and the fish was delicious and that overrode all sense of propriety.

Once we finished eating, we left fairly quickly.  Everyone was exhausted from the day, including the family who had made such pains to host us.  We were very grateful to Don Isidro and his wife, for being so generous with us and our kids.


Luis Robledo, from the Salon du Chocolat to Mexico City

Last week we visited a chocolate shop called Tout Chocolat in the Condessa neighborhood of Mexico City.  It took some work to get there: dragging the kids through the busy Mexico City subway system was no fun, neither was getting turned around several times before getting the map right. We were hot, tired and disgruntled by the time we got to the shop and we made it just before the afternoon rains.

Luis Robledo,  owner and chocolatier extraordinaire was there to greet us as we stumbled into his shop.  Cool, mellow and self-effacing, he instantly made us feel welcome and at ease (Darius later pointed out that Luis shares these characteristics with many other chocolatiers we’ve met).  He seemed genuinely surprised that we made the trek to visit his shop after reading an article about him which counted him as one of the 10 best chocolatiers in North America.  In appreciation he gave us a plate of his favorite chocolates to try.

We, of course,  ravaged them, fighting over the ones that peaked our curiosity such as the lime caramel and the white peach and apricot(the one for which he was now famous).  They were all amazing.  The lime caramel blew me away with its intensity.  The spiced caramel was rich and complex and so was the single origin ganache made with 100% Mexican chocolate.  It was exciting to taste these bold flavors and meltingly smooth ganaches and centers.  His execution was nearly perfect every time.  This is not by accident; Luis Robledo has an impressive CV.  He has worked with Daniel Boulud, Francois Payard and Canada’s own Thomas Haas in New York. He also counts Le Circque and the Four Season’s New York as his past employers.  Little did we know, but we watched him compete for Mexico at the World Chocolate Masters at the Salon du Chocolat in October!

[See the photos that we took of him in Paris at the end of this post.]

Since I was fresh out of chocolate, I needed to stock up for the next little while.  I bought a large box of chocolates (the largest), a couple of bars (he uses Valrhona) and some fruit and nut bark (which ended up being one of my favorites).

These items brought us great pleasure over the next few days in Mexico City.  I might even go so far as to say I had a revelation about chocolate while tasting his spiced caramel bon bon.  But more on that in the next posting…

[Mini Gallery of Photos from the World Chocolate Masters at the 2011 Salon du Chocolat in Paris]

Kick Starting some great chocolate.

We are backing a project on KickStarter that we really like called “A Edible History of Chocolate“. They are almost there but they need more people in the next 4 days to jump in. If you are interested in tasting some cutting edge chocolate from Mexico by way of Hawaii, sign up!

Here is a little video from the folks at Madre Chocolate:

and the current status: