Change is scary. Let's be honest. Traveling the same path, day in and day out, even with its infinite discoveries and slight variations, can be comforting. Deciding to take a hard left turn where you normally go right drops you smack dab in the middle of the unknown. Recently, I agreed to do just that and ended up in a Costa Rican jungle with my husband, three of our children and my best friend. For the most part, it was a fabulous adventure.
We went horseback riding on the beach and in the jungle. We zip lined the rainforest canopy. We held monkeys named Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at a rehabilitation center and saw a myriad of poisonous snakes, spiders and tree frogs. We learned the nuanced difference between two toed sloths and three toed sloths and decided that both variations shockingly mirror the habits of the American Teenage Human, sleeping for eighteen hours a day and waking only to feed. We witnessed the drive of the leaf cutting ants, snaking their offerings of green leaf snippets in tidy moving lines across the jungle floor. In one of many aha! moments, I found myself singing, "Just what makes that little black ant, think he can move a rubber tree plant..."
But, nothing prepared me for what we all thought was going to be an easy, pleasant, perhaps even teetering on the edge of boring, visit to a cacao plantation and factory. Since I was the only one of our group leaping at the chance to experience cacao up close and personal, I had to convince my daughter and my best friend to come along. The boys had already dedicated themselves to boogie boarding at the beach. "Oh, come on. It'll be fun!" I told them. "There'll be a lovely canoe ride, a walk through the plantation, and then we get to make chocolate! It even includes lunch. Come on, please." I was flat out begging.
My friend, Barbara, gave in pretty quickly because that's what best friends do. And, that's why they're your best friend to begin with. It also doesn't hurt that chocolate is her second favorite food, taking a back seat only to pasta. (Definitely best friend material for a foodie, right?). I think I may have actually bribed my daughter. But, she came along pretty willingly, too.
We arrived at the plantation dressed in the last of our clean, presentable clothes. After having been in the rainforest for several days, the pickings were slim. But we managed to pull ourselves together and we were looking and feeling good!
The first thing our host asked us upon arrival was, "Do you like mosquitos?" "Um, well, not really so much," I started to say, when Barbara emphatically and clearly stated, "No," and referred him to the dozens of bites and scabs on her arms and legs.
With a wide, toothy grin, our congenial host informed us that mosquitos are the main pollinators of cacao trees. "No mosquitos, no chocolate." And in another one of my Costa Rican aha! moments, I was reminded of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita on the dual nature of the material world. In our human pursuits of pleasure, constant as they are, we are equally guaranteed to stumble upon suffering no matter how we try to avoid it. The Gita instructs us to be equipoised in happiness and distress, heat and cold, fear and anxiety, ect... which is exactly what we proceeded to not do. Nonetheless, I now had a reason to respect if not adore the pesky, little, bloodsucking mosquito.
We were introduced to our tour guide, Rapha. He was wearing a long sleeve shirt, knee high rubber boots and red knee sox, firmly secured around his shins with rubber bands. In contrast, our trio was clad in tank tops, flip flops, and did I mention that I was carrying my dapper new purse? Yup, I was. I had it hiked up on my shoulder like we were on our way to shop Rodeo Drive.
Rapha cocked his head off to the left, beckoning us to follow him down a well-beaten path behind the entrance to the plantation. We nervously smiled at each other and obediently fell in line behind him. After about a minute of walking, the path narrowed and the jungle closed in on us. Where was the plantation? The neatly groomed rows of cacao trees I'd imagined? We didn't know and we couldn't ask. As it turns out, Rapha didn't speak a word of English and I hadn't actively spoken Spanish in over twenty years.
The narrow path began to descend steeply. Carefully placing one flip flopped foot after another and clinging to one another so as not to accidentally grab onto a poisonous snake skillfully camouflaged as a vine, we made our way down the steep slope.
Suddenly, a murky, brown river expanded out before us and a canoe containing several inches of muddy water awaited our arrival. Rapha bailed the water out of the canoe and then held his hand out for us. After exchanging more nervous smiles, we embarked and settled in. We glided silently downstream--just us, the river, the birds, and the outrageously beautiful jungle. It was all idyllic for about ten minutes until I started wondering about the crocodiles. What was the spanish word for crocodile? I mimed my best crocodile for Rapha, asking if there were crocs in the river. With my limited spanish, I understood his reply. "Yes, but they are small," he said.
We moved beyond nervous smiling into nervous laughter, which eventually moved us to start singing, of course. "Rapha," I cackled, "Quieres cantar?" (Do you want to sing?) Or at least that's what I think I asked him. His answer was a simple but clear, "No." And we all got really quiet again.
The sounds of the river began to change. It sounded somehow familiar, like the rush of traffic on a highway. Or maybe a waterfall? What was the word for waterfall? I didn't even have a guess.
We floated downstream a bit further and suddenly arrived on a stretch of beach with the saltwater ocean and crashing waves off to one side and the freshwater river we'd been traveling on off to the other. We were relieved to know that we weren't headed for class IV rapids, but completely confused. I wouldn't have been totally shocked to see Gilligan and MaryAnn greeting us with a coconut cream pie.
Rapha pulled the canoe ashore and climbed out. We wordlessly followed. Were we even on the right tour? Here we were, strolling on the beach with guy we knew nothing about, without another human in site for miles. If I was uncomfortable before, I was now saddling up along side my worst fears.
After a leisurely stroll on the beach, Rapha led us back to the canoe and scooped out the several inches of brown water that had accumulated in our absence. He motioned for us to get back in. Should we? I flashed on a self-defense course for women I'd taken where we were instructed to make our last stand in the parking lot, never get in the car and absolutely never go to the second location. Was that the rule for canoes and beaches, too?
Mainly because we didn't really have another option, we got back in the canoe and proceeded to engage in the kind of inappropriate laughter you might find yourself engaging in at, say, a funeral.
Rapha took us across the river to where it converged with the ocean and pulled the canoe ashore to the edge of yet another jungle. We disembarked and began a treacherous climb up a slippery, muddy path that seemed to be taking us directly into the heart of the jungle. The mosquitos were thick and vicious. I looked ahead and saw that Rapha was carrying the canoe's oar across his chest. For protection? As a weapon? Maybe we should have taken our chances and made our last stand on the beach. A couple of swift blows to the head and Rapha could easily have his way with any one of the three of us he liked. I strategically positioned my daughter between myself and my friend. And we stoically marched on, single file, deeper into the jungle. By now we were scrambling under thickets and artfully dodging dangling vines to keep up with our tour guide/captor. Occasionally one of our flip flops would get stuck in the thick mud and I'd yell, "Uno momento, por favor!" (One moment, please!)
On one such extraction, as I bent to pull my daughter's turquoise flip flop up form the jungle floor, I noticed paw prints. Big cat paw prints. Mosquitos, waterfalls, crocodiles, subservient captivity...it all paled in comparison to my fear of being eaten alive by a jaguar. "Rapha!" I screamed, "Hay gatos?!" (There are cats?!)
Rapha appeared, oar across his chest. Calmly, he studied us. He studied the paw prints. He replied in spanish, "Yes, but they are small." It was all too much. We started to laugh uncontrollably. We clutched at each other to keep form falling down. Rapha helplessly looked on. Suddenly he stretched out the oar and pointed to a tree with a large papaya shaped fruit clinging to the bark. "Cacao," he stated. We had arrived. We were on the cacao plantation. He cut the fruit off the tree, (he'd been carrying a knife?!), and sliced it open for us.
The outside of the fruit was green and yellow. The inside of it was fleshy and creamy white. He scooped a chunk of it out and popped it into his mouth. After a few seconds he spit out a seed. It was about 2" long and 1" wide. It was lightly covered by a thin layer of the creamy white flesh. He cracked it open to reveal the purplish innards of a raw cacao bean. We each scooped out a hunk of cacao flesh and sucked our way down to the bean The white flesh was sweet and sour at the same time, like Smarties. It was surprisingly delightful. And I wondered why some enterprising exotic fruit salesperson had never had the sense to market cacao fruit.
We made our way back to the entrance of the plantation, giddy and relieved. We were served a lovely lunch of vegetarianos casados. This is the staple meal of Costa Ricans, consisting of black beans, rice, plantains, mixed cooked vegetables and salad. You will find it anywhere and everywhere you go, making it a wonderful country for adventurous vegetarian visitors.
After lunch we were invited to the chocolate factory. We followed a group of a dozen or so tourists who had the sense to skip the plantation tour and move straight to the chocolate making.
The "factory" turned out to be a thatched roof structure with no walls, housing a table, two benches and an open fire. First we roasted the cacao beans in a well worn iron wok. When they cooled, we rolled the beans between our fingers to break off the outer husks. The freshly roasted cacao beans were collected and poured into a hand-cranked grinder that was firmly attached to the edge of the table. We all took turns winding the handle around and around in big circles. The gritty cacao powder was scooped into a large, wooden bowl and mixed with sugar. We were all handed a ball of the mixture and instructed to vigorously knead and roll our little masses. When we'd sufficiently processed the chocolate, each of our offerings was collected and rolled into a large uniform rectangle by hand with a rolling pin. The result looked like a cross between brownies and fudge. This was cut into small squares and offered back to us for sampling. It was beyond my wildest dreams. If I'd been a passionate advocate of dark chocolate before, I was now beginning to feel an evangelical calling.
We sat and savored the fruits of our hard earned labor until the rest of the tourists had cleared out, floating on our own little cloud of cacao bliss. "One more square?" I asked my cacao loving partners. They agreed that they'd already eaten at least a half dozen squares each. "Yes, " I smiled, unable to help myself, "but they are small."
CACAO BLISS TRUFFLES
This recipe came from my sister, Kathleen, who happens also to be a foodie and a vegetarian. She makes them in the most outrageous flavors...rosewater, cardamon and orange, chai spice, cayenne pepper, basil...the list of possibilities is endless. According to her, the secret ingredient is the tiniest pinch of salt, because salt, she says, "makes chocolate sing."
8 ounces chopped fair-trade bittersweet chocolate
4 ounces full fat canned coconut milk
1 teas. almond extract
1/2 teas. ground cinnamon
1/4 cup fair-trade cocoa powder
pinch of salt (a scant less than 1/16 of a teaspoon, for those of you who hate the imprecision of a pinch. We know who you are and we love you. You pay the bills on time and water the plants and generally make the world a more predictable place. Thank you.)
Begin by blending the whole can of coconut milk with a hand blender or a stand blender until it is emulsified. Then, measure out 4 ounces of it. Add the chocolate and the coconut milk to the top of a double boiler and melt until smooth. Stir in the cinnamon and the almond extract. Chill until solid.
Scoop heaping teaspoonfuls from the solid mass and roll them into balls with your hands. This is messy business. Be prepared to rinse your hands several times as you go to keep the mixture from building up on your palms. Drop 4 or 5 balls at a time into the cocoa powder and dust them on all sides before extracting them and placing them on a plate.
They can be kept in the fridge for several days. You can also store them in a sealed container in the freezer for a longer period of time if need be.
ⓒ copywrite 2012 Beth Beaton Mausert