After the ten-hour trip yesterday, we all slept soundly and were woken by the crowing of a rooster. I had forgotten about these guys (they woke us last time too) so promptly at 6AM, the rooster started “rooostering.” Funny thing about roosters, they don’t really care how late you got to sleep the night before – and this guy was relentless. In fact, I am pretty certain that when he heard us start waking, he planted himself directly under our window and continued with his crow-alert.
None of us minded. We gathered again at Samuel and Anita’s house for a delicious breakfast with an egg, fresh fruit, a small corn cake and some really great coffee.
After fueling up, Samuel shared a little of his history in the cacao business and his thoughts about the super cacao tree. In his previous life, Samuel’s training as a Nestle agronomics expert have come in handily helping him with the science behind the farming. As part of his proprietary fermenting process, he pre-dries his cacao. Interestingly, this is not a process that any other producers practice. This encourages the fermentation process and actually, when it’s finished, the bean tastes like dark chocolate. Most of us think that the roasting process is what “finishes” the product but in actuality, this pre-drying process (au natural if you will) produces a result that is truly deliciouso.
Interestingly to me, there are many parallels between giving birth and harvesting cacao. In fact a lot of the same language is used. The internal membrane surrounding the seeds is called the “placenta” and Samuel shared that the moment the pod is cut away from the tree, an enzymatic change begins to take place. It’s a living thing after all – and it requires nutrients, care, and a whole lotta love before it arrives in our local grocery store in it’s final form.
We drove to an area of the plantation where we were taught to harvest cacao. It’s done with machetes (sharp) and
there is a technique that is quite precise. Joni stepped forward bravely to handle the machete and none of us was too worried as she is an excellent cook and knows her way around a knife. She started slicing and at one point the machete slipped and cut her thumb deeply but in true Joni style – she didn’t want to quit before she had conquered the cacaco pod.
Samuel’s lovely wife Anita (who just so happens to be in nursing school) stitched her thumb back together (three stitches) and when we came back to check on her – she was ready to go again. That’s Joni. She doesn’t quit. Ever. And she certainly was not going to let a machete get the best of her.
Then Samuel put is to work in the farm. We pruned cacao trees, carefully removing what he calls “suckers” or small shoots that steal nutrients from the trees. Our two female guides Lola and Mercedes helped educate us on the proper way to prune the foliage. Mercedes apparently has an extra sensory perception and can smell snakes (culebras). So, we felt certain that the forested area we were trekking into was snake-free.
Samuel’s plantation is home to some 112,000 trees and the top leaves also have to be pruned twice a year to allow the sun to shine directly into the tree. This takes about three months time. Although he is harvesting throughout the year, next month will be the time that Samuel and his team (35 strong) harvest the majority of the cacao that his trees produce.
We finished a full day of cacao education 101 by learning about the grafting process. No one in Ecuador is currently grafting trees and Samuel is only doing it for research and development purposes. If the super cacao tree is truly going to become the ultimate chocolate machine, he’ll have the knowledge to graft this variety to his trees and produce even more quality cacao.