The secret to cacao farming in Mexico: Tell the trees you love them

The Perennial Plate

The Perennial Plate could give you wanderlust really quickly, at least if you're curious about food. The weekly, online documentary series follows two people who travel the world learning -- and filming -- how people really eat in their home countries.

The duo, chef Daniel Klein and camerawoman Mirra Fine, find their way into home kitchens, onto farms and fishing boats. And they have a goal: 12 countries, in-depth, in 18 months. In Chiapas, Mexico, they followed a woman who has been farming cacao in the jungle for 50 years. [Ed. note: In Hidalgo, Mexico, they met a group of oregano farmers who hope to keep people from leaving their community for the U.S. Watch the video here.]

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You were recently in Mexico. What did you discover?

Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine
Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine (Photo: The Perennial Plate)

Mirra Fine: We went to Chiapas, which is the southernmost state of Mexico, to a town called Tapachula. It's about 20 minutes from the Guatemalan border. Most people only go there for a stopover before going to Guatemala. People were surprised because they said, "You're going to Guatemala tomorrow?" We said, "No, we're actually here to meet a woman who grows cacao."

LRK: Cocoa beans.

MF: Exactly.

We never really know what to expect when we're meeting someone for the first time. I remember being surprised when we opened the car door and saw this beautiful Mexican woman who was in her 70s. She had her hair, all gray, in one braid that went down past her waist, this beautiful blue-and-green-colored skirt down to her ankles and she was carrying this humongous machete.

 She took us into the jungle, which was where she had been farming cacao for 50 years. We're walking around this jungle and there are all these trees -- I didn't really realize what a cacao pod looked like -- and all these pods are hanging off these trees.

They look like a super pregnant banana with a hard shell. They're bright orange when they're ripe, they're green when they're not ripe and they're brown when they're completely overripe. With her machete she would hit one of the pods and it would fall off. She could break it open, which is when we could see the actual cacao beans covered in a fleshy pulp. That was the fruit, which was amazing.

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LRK: I've heard it tastes fabulous. It sounds like a lychee nut.

Daniel Klein: Yes, maybe a cross between a lychee and passion fruit.

LRK: Does anybody sell it?

MF: They should is what I'm thinking.

DK: It's astounding that cacao pods are only used for the chocolate because they are the most incredible thing you've ever had. Even though they are not tasted directly, that sweetness and that deliciousness must enter into the chocolate. That's part of the reason with really good chocolate you get fruity flavors.

The woman who took us around the farm actually said it's not only the fruit that contributes to the fruity flavor of the chocolate, but also the trees that surround it. It's very important that you don't grow cacao in an open field. You need it to be surrounded by banana trees, orange trees, passion fruit and all these different, wonderful things that, she says, contribute to the chocolate.

She actually thinks they're so important that she talks to her trees and shares with them how she's protecting them and loves them. It's very beautiful.

Cacao pod
A cacao pod that has been chopped open (Photo: The Perennial Plate)

LRK: It is. Does she actually make the chocolate?

MF: She does. That fruit around each cacao nib or nut, you let it ferment all together with the fruit in it for 4 days. Then you take it out, dry it, toast it and then peel it.

DK: This woman makes her own chocolate, but she also sells her cacao to a cooperative. We went to that cooperative and saw how they traditionally toast the beans.

LRK: How did they do that?

DK: They take it in a clay pot that's about 4 inches deep and a couple feet wide and start a fire. You move the beans constantly. You can't let them sit because you need an even toasting throughout, so you keep it moving quickly. It's very smoky.

They start to pop like popcorn. You get this popping sound. That happens more and more, and when it begins to stop, the cacao is finished. By then you'll smell a little bit of what smells like chocolate. It starts to smell delicious.

You take it off and they're ready to crack open. Inside the bean are the nibs. The nibs are the beautiful things that you want to eat that make chocolate.

We sat around with this woman at the table in her backyard in the shade and spent a couple of hours cracking open these cacao beans and chatting. They don't really do that very often in that way -- there are machines that do it -- but you can see the community that develops from sitting around.

Then you get to eat them. We particularly ate the blonde nibs. One in 20 or one in 100 of the cacao beans has a blonde chocolate in it -- that has a sweeter, milder flavor, a little more fruity than the regular cocoa nibs.

Sorting cacao beans
A cacao farmer separates beans (Photo: The Perennial Plate)

LRK: What does a chocolate nib taste like? Is it bitter?

MF: It's very crunchy. It has that dark chocolate taste to it where there's no sweetness. But sometimes there's a little bit of banana or a little bit of fruitiness to it on the back end.

LRK: Did you get a chance to taste the final product, the finished chocolate?

DK: We did. We got a chance to taste a couple of chocolates. We tasted a chocolate they make down in Chiapas, which is a more granular drinking chocolate you put with milk or water and you drink warm. It sometimes has cinnamon in it or different spices, maybe chile.

We also went to Mexico City and tried the chocolate of this man, Héctor Galván, who runs a place called La Casa Tropical. He uses that chocolate from Chiapas but makes a more refined version of it. He really has this passion for creating a new type of Mexican chocolate that is neither European nor the granular chocolate that's familiar. He wants to create something that tastes of Mexico.

He had this beautiful thing where he was talking about how people eat his chocolate and they feel something. He says they feel it because chocolate has been in Mexican culture since the Mayans. It was used as money in the past, so it's something that's deeply embedded in the people and the history of Mexico. That, he says, has power. You can feel in your blood, as a Mexican, that it's part of who you are.

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