food & drink

Here’s The History Of Why Costa Rican Cacao Is Spiritually And Culturally Significant

Danielli Marzouca / mitú

It’s truly impossible to imagine growing up in a world without chocolate, and I’m not talking about Hershey’s. Really rich, dark chocolate was used medicinally in my house. If I had any type of feeling or was crying, my mother wouldn’t say a word, walk away, and come back with chocolate.

Join me on my own adventure in learning the history of cacao with a Costa Rican indigenous tribe, los Bribri.

Any good Costa Rican chocolate is made by hand.

CREDIT: Untitled. Digital Image. CaribeansCR. 21 September 2018.

Only in the last 100 years or so have traditional cacao farmers started letting the cacao cool into molds, como Hershey. Super traditional farms will roll the freshly stone-ground cacao into little cigarillos and the texture is more crumbly and dynamic.

Cacao trees are native to tropical Latin America.

CREDIT: Crush Boone / The Tico Times

The cacao fruit pods themselves were used as currency in some Aztec and Mayan cultures. Mayans even had an annual festival in honor of Ek Chuah, the cacao god that brought them the sacred fruit used for medicinal and spiritual rituals.

Pero Puerto Viejo is one of the few places that creates single estate bean to bar chocolate.

CREDIT: Untitled. Digital Image. Cho.co. 21 September 2018.

Every farm and every tree will produce a different chocolate taste. The liquid sunshine and high elevation jungles that exist in Costa Rica allow for some of the best cacao beans in the world to flourish. My girlfriend and I traveled to Puerto Viejo, an Afro-Caribbean beach town, known for its intact indigenous culture, big waves and cacao.

First, we met with a shaman (“awa”) at the Bribri indigenous reserve.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú

He explained to us that this cone shaped structure represents the Bribri’s connection to the Universe and to God. They have always known that the world was round and the structure symbolizes the round earth we sit on that points directly to God and our higher spiritual selves.

The Bribri is a largely matriarchal society.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú

They are the only ones who can inherit land and prepare the sacred cacao drink that is essential for their rituals.

In just the last few years, the Bri Bri have started to write down their language and teach it at the schools to maintain their culture and continue to pass it down to more generations. They are the voting majority of the Talamanca province of Costa Rica and make a living selling cacao, bananas and plantains, while living off the land.

This is what the inside of a ripe cacao pod looks like.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú

I know, I wasn’t expecting that either. The white coating surrounding the beans themselves tastes like mango or yogurt, depending on who you ask. It’s very tart and very delicious, and the source of cocoa butter.

The first step is to ferment the beans over a fire for five days.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú

The first being tradition. The truth is that the Bribri do tend to suffer from lung issues because of all the smoke inhalation over the course of their lives. The other reason is that most roofs are made from a native plant called suita. The rising smoke deters bugs from making the roof their home.

Then, they leave them out in the sun to dry for 22 days.

CREDIT: Lindsay Fendt / The Tico Times

That’s how the cacao starts to brown and develop its rich flavor. That’s also how you develop la paciencia. 🤤

In Bribri mythology, the cacao tree is a woman and Sibu (Dios) made into a tree.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú

Cacao branches are forbidden to be used as firewood and only women are allowed to make the sacred cacao. It’s only used in ceremonial purposes, like when a girl gets her period for the first time. You can support Bribri women by buying their organic, hand made chocolate.

Then, the beans are roasted over a fire for about 8 minutes.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú

The beans have to be constantly stirred the whole time. As the stirrer, I can tell you that it is labor intensive to be in 90 degree heat, over a fire, with smoke blowing up in your face, while you quickly stir.

The traditional next step is to grind the cacao beans with a stone.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú
Many years before, they used the huge wooden pillón you see to the right. My first boricua thought was “Ummm, I could use that much mofongo.”

The beans are then tossed to separate the shell and prepare for further grounding.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú
Because the shells of the cacao are much lighter than the dense bean inside, they naturally just fall onto the earth and are used as fertilizer. What’s left is the pure cacao, ready to be ground even further.

Today, they use a metal grinder to create the paste.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú

This is 100 percent pure cacao you’re looking at. In this form, it is made into a ceremonial drink, but it too bitter to eat raw. We had it sandwiched between some sweet banana slices.

There are several non-profit organizations you can support to aid the Bribri.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú

They use every shred of the land to build their homes, necklaces, dye their artisan crafts and more. El Punte, however, offers educational assistance and micro-loans to families to help them become even more self-sufficient.

This is my face after one cup of drinking chocolate.

CREDIT: Danielli Marzouca / mitú

After boiling a pot of water seasoned with fresh canela from the ground and some organic sugar, you add the creamy paste and stir. Cacao is said by the Bribri to have six medicinal properties, one of them being a mood-lifter.

In this part of Costa Rica, you can find a few shops that offer beer, wine and coffee + chocolate pairings.

CREDIT: Untitled. Digital Image. Cho.co. 21 September 2018.

This is the traditionally rolled chocolate I mentioned earlier. We came to Cho.co in Puerto Viejo after a surfing lesson and this pairing was everything we needed.

However, cacao has only recently started to make a comeback after a devastating fungal epidemic.

CREDIT: Crush Boone / The Tico Times

Fifty years ago, there were at least 20 cacao plantations that supported Costa Rica’s economy. Today, most of that land is clear-cut cattle pasture. The Caribbean replanted the loss of cacao trees with banana plantations. Many of the locals told me they boycott Dole and La Chiquita bananas because of their pesticide use that is harming locals.

Eighty percent of cacao crop was lost in the 1970s.

CREDIT: Crush Boone / The Tico Times

The center is a healthy cacao bean, while the others are infected with the monilia fungus. European colonizers responded by planting cacao in Africa, which now produces more than 70 percent of the world’s cacao’s lesser variety, half of which come from conflict zones.

Costa Rica is leading the genetic research to find a fungus-protected strain of cacao.

CREDIT: PatMc7 / TripAdvisor

They are testing Costa Rica’s known strains of cacao against the murilio fungus and offering the strongest strains to local farmers.

My parting advice to you: go to Puerto Viejo and buy seven times as much chocolate as you think you need.

CREDIT: Whitney M. / TripAdvisor

These small plantations have their own varieties of cacao that produce distinctly different flavors. Go to Caribbeans and taste test chocolate from the 15 plantations that have cropped up in the last decade or so. You’ll find a favorite.


READ: You’ll Never Look At Chocolate The Same Once You Find Out Its Brutal History

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