The sign, “Bienvenidos a esta hermosa tierra del cacao” — Welcome to the beautiful land of cocoa — greets visitors to the famous Dominican cocoa plantation, El Sendero del Cacao. Located a comfortable 2½-hour drive north of Santo Domingo, just west of the city San Franciso de Macoris, the drive takes the visitor through a beautiful countryside of cane fields and banana plantations with the mountains in the distance.
Two highly knowledgeable English-speaking guides completely satisfied our need for information. The first introduced us to the outdoor portion of the process and concluded with the traditional method of creating chocolate. The second took us through the modern refining process which involves various stainless steel machines, time, temperature control, shaping the delicious product into molds, and chilling it.
Did you know there are two ways to create a cacao tree? The first is germination from a seed. It takes longer and there is no guarantee as to the quality of the tree.
Grafting a Cacao Plant
The other method of producing a cocao tree is to graft a stock from a known producer onto a healthy plant. Basically this is how:
Choose a healthy young tree and cut off the top about a foot from the soil. Cut a stem or limb of about the same length and circumference from a tree known to produce at least 120 good quality pods per year, and remove the leaves. Slice the top of the rooted section and insert the graft. Wrap the area snugly with plastic wrap. Then cover the two pieces with a loose plastic bag to keep the rain off and to protect the plant from mold and other diseases.
The cacao trees have to have a careful balance of sunlight and shade. Too much shade causes the pods to mold. Yes, those ugly black pods are the result.
The pods with big holes were made by rodents. Cats and dogs help keep the infestation down, but they are social creatures and stay nearer the buildings. The most efficient rodent killers are snakes, Spanish boas the neighbors catch and sell to the plantations. Fortunately they are very unsocial and live far out in the forest of cacao trees. I was content to miss spotting them.
The small holes in these two pods were made by woodpeckers who then flew away for a few days while the pod became infested with worms. The woodpeckers then returned for a snack. This scarecrow high above the trees is designed to scare away even the most intrepid woodpeckers.
The plantation grows two different kinds of cocoa beans. The red pods grow larger, but the green pods are higher quality. The moist white gelatinous covering of the cocoa beans inside the pod is delicious, by the way. If you take a piece, suck off the white covering, and then chomp down on the bean inside, you get a mouthful of sand-textured, bitter-tasting stuff. I had to spit it out on the ground. I wonder who made the leap that adding sweetness to that nasty glob turned it into the fruit of the gods!
The beans have to be dried in big airy sheds, and fermented in a tank. We visited the plantation every few months all year because we enjoyed it so much and wanted to bring all our friends for the experience. The photos of the drying tanks above were taken between the large spring harvest and the smaller fall harvest, so they were empty.
The Old-fashioned way
I like the old-fashioned method of creating cocoa paste. Pour the prepared beans into a hollowed out stump and add a lot of brown sugar. Then take a beater and pound it into a delicious sticky grainy gob with the most amazing robust flavor. Form it into a ball and about fifteen minutes later it will have hardened. Then grate it into hot water for an utterly delicious chocolate drink.
The chocolate dance
This chocolate dance was my favorite part of the whole adventure!
The morning ended with a delicious lunch served in a covered patio hung with orchids. Banners with interesting historical anecdotes about chocolate were hung throughout the dining area. Does it get better than that?
Below: On a different note, this sign above the urinal in the men’s washroom struck me as funny. If Spanish isn’t your second language, bring up Google Translate for some historical machismo!
In the chocolate processing building a framed certificate of first prize from a Parisian chocolatier hangs on the wall. The confection — but the word confection is wrong. It suggests something sweet and frothy, whereas this chocolate is deep and basic — more a force of nature.
A small-print package description in French, English, and German from the French chocolatier, Michel Cluizel of 201, Rue Saint-Honore, Paris, describes this Dominican marvel in terms similar to a fine wine:
“On the island of Santo Domingo, in the heart of the Caribbean, I discovered Hacienda “Los Ancores,” a remarkable plantation splendidly surrounded by a verdant palm grove. West of San Francisco de Macoris, the Rizek family has been producing exquisite cocoa beans since 1903. After lengthy processing in my workshops, the beans are transformed into this wonderful dark chocolate exuding elegance, freshness and a fine combination of aromas: the first note is liquorice root, followed by berries and a drawn-out finish of green olive, currant and apricot.”
For more JMBryce Travel blogs about visiting the center area of the Dominican Republic: