Adventures in cacao country

Searching for the mysterious origins of chocolate in northern Nicaragua

Sure, I really like chocolate, who doesn’t? But for me, a trip to the northern reaches of Nicaragua was just a chance to explore some unfamiliar countryside and shake off the heat-induced ennui that had settled over me during the previous few months in Granada.

For the artisan chocolate maker I had just met from Lithuania and his fellow countryman, our recent trip north was an experience of a lifetime—a holy chocolate pilgrimage of sorts.

Originally, the three of us agreed on a dawn departure to get an early start on our mission to learn about cacao cultivation in Nicaragua. But early starts can be a problem in Nicaragua. By nine o’clock on the morning, our driver had not yet arrived. After the usual back and forth on the phone, we finally departed after eleven.

It’s not the end of the world, but mid-day departures never bode well in my opinion. Great adventures are best started by first light, but since the hired car had surprisingly good tires and wasn’t missing any essential components, we weren’t going to let the tardiness of the driver dampen our spirits.

All that changed 15 minutes along on the highway towards Managua, when our driver announced he had mistakenly left his cellphone back in Granada. There was nothing to be done, so I smiled through gritted teeth and became despondent as we turned around and head back.

The second departure was flawless. After we were a few hours out on the open road, I swore that I could actually feel the pressure of the two oceans that bind Nicaragua in a corset begin to release their grip. We headed northeast and, as the terrain became more mountainous and full-breasted above its pinched waist, the isthmus that joins the Americas finally seemed able to breathe more freely. But things were still not going too well for us.

We laid over in Matagalpa for the night. Once we checked into our hotel, we discovered that the cacao company representative we were scheduled to meet the following day had suddenly become unavailable, apparently away on some business in Honduras. A stand-in, one of the company’s technical assistants, arrived at our hotel with his wife and several sleepy children, armed with apologies and a slideshow of a cacao farm; it was hardly what we had bargained for.

It took some extended pleading on my part before he agreed to have someone meet us the following morning to take us to a farm that serves as genetic bank for the different cacao varieties used as propagating stock for growers throughout Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. It was already becoming late and we were exhausted. Since the commercial heart of Matagalpa consists mainly of pharmacies and shoe stores, our dining choices were limited to hotdogs from a pushcart and a bottle of rum purchased in a local pool hall. If anyone had any doubts about the way things had been going so far, not a word was spoken as we turned in for the night.

In the morning we set off on a long, bumpy ride into the heart of cacao-growing region, a sleepy area that shows no evidence of its relatively recent war-torn past. I would like to claim I was refreshed after a night’s sleep, but that would be a lie. After 40 kilometers, the paved road summarily ended and much of modern civilization with it as we reached the community of La Dalia. We continued on, following a map sketched on a napkin, until we reached El Cua. 

The microclimate changes dramatically once you leave Matagalpa and gain some elevation. The hills turn intensely green, sodden and dripping with moisture, even though it is the dry season. I noticed as we drove through alternating sunny and foggy stretches that nearly everyone, even the smallest children bereft of clothing, was wearing rubber boots.

We had the name and cellphone number of our prospective guide scribbled on our napkin map. We had been instructed to meet him at a particular unnamed bridge at the edge of El Cua in roughly the center of nowhere. It seemed ridiculous to drive more than 70 kilometers to meet a stranger at a bridge that didn’t even have a name. And the way things had been unfolding, I wasn’t particularly surprised when it turned out there were several unnamed bridges leading into El Cua and no cellphone service to make sense of the situation. It looked like our prospects were becoming more dismal by the moment.

So many aspects of this trip had augured poorly and I began to feel badly for my companions who actually traveled all the way from Europe for what was quickly becoming a wild goose chase over endless stretches of bad road. 

When we arrived at one unnamed bridge, we suddenly discovered that—quite miraculously—we had cellphone service for the first time in hours. As if on cue, Valentin, our designated guide, picked up on the other end of the line and said he would come right over to escort us 20 kilometers down another bumpy dirt road to our destination. I may have imagined it, but barely half an hour later I thought I could hear celestial trumpets blowing as the sun broke through the clouds to herald Valentin’s arrival in his diminutive Honda.

Cacao trees are small to midsize shade-grown trees that are intercropped with banana trees, some hardwoods and often coffee plants which make it impractical if not impossible to grow them as a monocrop in large plantations with nice even rows. Our first glimpse of ripening cacao pods clustered along the lower trunks of the trees was a startling sight. First of all, you have to consider that cacao—the only source of chocolate in the world—is not immediately recognizable to nearly anyone who has spent a lifetime enjoying candy bars and all the other assorted chocolate treats.

Although it is one of the most familiar and widely recognized tastes on the planet, ask nearly anyone residing in the northern latitudes where chocolate comes from and you’re likely to get blank stares and bemused shrugs. They wouldn’t be able to identify a cacao pod if one fell on their head!  

Standing in a forested grove in northern Nicaragua, it suddenly seemed a shame that so few of us ever consider where chocolate comes from. The leafy canopy that draped itself tranquilly over the gently sloped hillside made you want to talk in whispers as you picked out the nearly camouflaged cacao trees one by one.

Instead of hanging from the tips of slender branches like apples or any other familiar tree fruit, the large, football-shaped cacao pods dangle in loose clusters, growing directly out of the trunk itself like nothing I had ever seen before. The colors range from ivory and yellow, to a striking, deep rosy red, depending on the variety. Theobroma, incidentally, the Latin genus of the aptly-named tree that gives us chocolate translates as “food of the gods.”

We were introduced to the grower who cut a ripe seed pod open with a few carefully administered whacks of a machete, exposing the slimy cacao seeds nestled tightly in the pithy center. He pulled out a few of the seeds, which he encouraged us to taste. I timidly popped the unappetizing thing into my mouth and sucked the gooey white slime which exploded with the taste of mandarin orange and something that reminded me of a mouthful of Sweet Tarts. During our stay I gorged myself on the raw seeds; popping them into my mouth one after another like a twelve year old eating M&M’s at a movie matinee.

Valentin cut several of the lima bean shaped seeds open to show us that some were dark purple inside, while others are nearly entirely white. The white ones are revered for their superior flavor characteristics and are more highly sought after for chocolate making.

Nearly all cacao grown in Nicaragua comes from small family farms. Since its introduction into the area in the 1960s, it has become a significant part of the local economy. While the area is still extremely poor by any standard, the cash brought in by cacao is an important element in the lives of the farmers in the region.

After several hours touring the farm, shooting video interviews and taking photos, Valentin led us down the hillside of the densely forested area to an open field that is bisected by a lazy, meandering river. We waded across the knee-deep water in order to get closer to a single tree that grew along the grassy riverbank. This was allegedly the “criollo” variety, an indigenous heirloom cacao grown by the Mayas.

The tree was noticeably different in size and shape from the other trees we had already seen and there were dozens of comparatively small, ivory colored pods adorning its trunk. After years of interbreeding cacao varieties, the “criollo” is considered somewhat rare and is distinguished by the fact that all of the seeds within the small pods are entirely white inside. As far as cacao genetics was concerned, we were standing before the Holy Grail.

Later, we continued on another 20 kilometers to the town of La Bocay, where the raw cacao from many small growers is gathered and processed before shipment to chocolate makers all over the world. Here the beans are layered with banana leaves in shallow wooden boxes and allowed to ferment for a period of about eight days.

During the critical fermentation stage the unique flavors of the raw cacao are developed before the beans are spread onto open, wooden trays and dried for another two weeks underneath a makeshift plastic greenhouse. Eventually, they would be roasted by the chocolate maker, winnowed to remove husk material and finally ground, blended with other ingredients, conched and tempered before molded into finished chocolate.

The process from bean to bar is surprisingly complex and I was impressed that something as wonderful as chocolate, widely consumed in every part of the world, is derived from a substance with such humble origins. I tried to visualize the small mountain of chocolate I had consumed in the past 50 years and the outsized pleasure it had given me: donuts, cookies, cakes, chocolate milk, brownies, Hershey’s Kisses, chocolate rabbits, Almond Joys, Tootsie Rolls, Whitman’s Samplers and later as an adult with more discerning tastes, all those boxes of Godiva and Belgian Chocolates, Toblerone, Cadbury, Lindt…

 By the end of the day, we began to retrace our path over horrendous dirt roads back to La Dalia, Matagalpa and eventually Granada. The scenery was startlingly beautiful in any direction I looked. Clustered along the road there were simple two-room houses made of crude wooden planks, a tin or even thatched roof and a dirt floor. Nearly everyone had a large pig lounging in a mud puddle outside or often standing imperiously in the open doorway of the house like a Park Avenue doorman (minus the hat and epaulets).

Wood smoke wafted out through doors and walls and windows since no one sees the need for a chimney. Dogs lay listlessly on the dirt floor and chickens pecked around for whatever chickens peck around for. Aside from a single bare light bulb here and there, I don’t imagine much has changed here in a very long while. The modern world of chocolate lovers and the tempting store displays of candy bars seemed so far away that it was impossible to join the two in my mind.

The beauty and lushness of the place was striking. Clouds skimmed the hilltops flanking the valleys planted with beans and corn. Tattered banana leaves and hanging laundry fluttered listlessly in tandem in every yard and farmers toiled on even the steepest hillsides with lumbering teams of oxen. People plied the road on horseback or bicycle, while others walked along with large bundles on their heads. They carried flashlights but only turned them on briefly to get their bearings before continuing on in total darkness. I wondered about their lives and if chocolate lovers everywhere didn’t owe them some sort of acknowledgement for their efforts.

Our journey was nearly complete. We had succeeded in tracing a path from the familiar taste we had always known to its previously unknown and mysterious source. We had met several wonderful and generous people along the way whose lives depended on their few crops.

My two companions chatted in a language I couldn’t understand while they kept checking to see if they had cellphone service. Our driver concentrated on the road to avoid people walking along the road in the pitch dark. I wasn’t quite ready to let go of this place. Lush vistas and the image of the ripening cacao pods continued to burn in my mind and I found myself wondering what it would be like to stay here awhile and live among the hardscrabble farm folk of Nicaragua’s Atlantico Norte.

We pressed onward towards the lowlands in our cloud of dust and I noticed that even the local dogs seemed to stop and stare at us with something that bordered on bewilderment.

Robert Skydell is a retired architect and restaurateur. He lives in Granada and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts

 

  • http://asurfeitofpalfreys.wordpress.com/ Helen Devries

    What went wrong in Matagalpa!
    We often go there and there are plenty of good places to eat!

    The area out to La Dalia and onward is beautiful…..

  • Ned Block

    Hi Bob, great article!

  • Gerd

    Bob, you are sometimes poetically exaggerating, ¿verdad? Should have come to RAAS and see our organic cocoa growing places. Just some remarks: 25 years after the end of the war it is no surprise to see nothing any more of it (as you wonder at the beginning of the article). Remember Germany in 1970!

    You missed the big place near Matagalpa, where the German chocolate maker Ritter is buying directly the Nicaraguan organic cocoa. Farmers do not have to care any more about export permissions, aduana agents, containers, ships, lost ships (!), and getting some day the money from Europe. We bring it to Matagalpa,it is checked for quality parameters and that is it. BUT: it must be fermented cocoa (which is nearly black) and not this light brown stuff you show on one of the photos. This is for local use in pinolillo etc., has nearly no chocolate taste, but it is preferred by Nicaraguans, “because it is not so ugly dark”. Greetings from Nueva Guinea, RAAS, Sano y Salvo, Primera Asociación Campesina e Indígena de Cultura y Producción Ecológicas en la Biosfera del Sureste.

    • robert skydell

      Thanks for the read, Gerd. I did see the Ritter facility outside Matagalpa but only in passing. Perhaps a trip to RAAS next time.
      The criollo seedlings I germinated are doing fine in Granada in the meantime.

  • kari bell

    I love your article. Nicaragua and Cacao are both deep loves of mine. Maybe an adventure next time I’m there?
    :)