Exploring Costa Rica
Part 2 – Cacao
Cacao (Theobroma cacao) grows well in humid forest ecosystems, and Costa Rica is one of them, even if Ecuador is considered to grow the best quality of chocolate. The coffee plantation I visited (see Exploring Costa Rica, Part 1) in Monteverde does not grow cacao, the region being too cold and windy, but they had one plant in a greenhouse to use for educational purposes. In Costa Rica, cacao grows in the provinces of Guanacaste, Alajuela, Cartago, and Puntarenas. Cacao plantations used to cover 10,000 hectares of land until monilia fungus wiped out over 80% of the cacao trees. Today, the industry is making a comeback, with a cacao species created specifically to resist the fungus.
The name Theobroma comes from the Greek words θεός (theos), meaning “god,” and βρῶμα (broma), meaning “food”. Chocolate is considered literally the “food of the Gods”, and I am sure nobody disagrees with this. It used to be prepared with corn and chili in a recipe that is very different from the chocolate that we know today.
Cacao – From Pod to Treat
The cacao pod is long, oval shaped and has a rough, leathery rind with colors ranging from green (unripe) to yellow to red with brownish spots. It can hold up to 20-40 cacao beans encased in a sweet, mucilaginous pulp. Surprisingly, this pulp is delicious – it tastes like a litchi lemonade – but the bean inside is too bitter to be consumed fresh. In the eco-responsible El Trapiche farm, the pods are used for compost.
The beans are then left to dry and ferment, a process that helps in developing the aroma of cacao as we know it. Methods vary, but traditionally in Costa Rica, the beans are left to ferment for up to 6 days on banana leaves; the leaves possess an antibacterial agent that prevents the beans from molding.
The roasting process comes next: According to the future intended use – cocoa or actual chocolate – roasting time varies, producing a more acid and aromatic chocolate at “low-roast”, and a more intense and bitter flavor at “high-roast”. The cacao beans are then peeled from their thin shell, to be ground into cocoa nibs. At that point, the nibs are a deep brown color, and the rich chocolate aroma is definitely present. In case you are wondering – the terms cacao and cocoa are interchangeable!
I volunteered to demonstrate the grinding process – done with a bike for fun purposes – which yields a brown sticky powder. Chocolate factories don’t use a tourist and a bike, of course, but a mill. The heat and the friction create what is called the “mass”, a thick chocolate-colored liquid. Then the last part consists in pressing this mass and separating the cocoa butter from the cacao powder.
Cocoa Butter – The Skin Likes It Too!
Cocoa butter is one of my favorite ingredients in aromatherapy. It has a long shelf life, smells amazing, and does wonders for dry skin. It is easy to use and to include in recipes such as body butters and lip balms. The undeodorized version is best for the skin, as it is more complete and holds more nutrients than the deodorized butter.
It mainly contains oleic, palmitic and stearic acid, which account for the stability and the thickness of the butter – it is solid at room temperature, but just like chocolate, it melts once in contact with the skin. Cocoa butter also contains vitamin E, an excellent antioxidant, and makes a wonderful ingredient to use in wound and scar healing products. The richness and thickness of cocoa butter helps maintain the natural protective layer of our skin and avoid moisture loss.
Combining Coffee and Chocolate – A Yummy Recipe!
I had fun creating this body butter scrub, combining a whipped body butter (recipe here) for moisturizing, and coffee grounds for scrubbing. It is best used in the shower, so the coffee just goes away with the water. If you can substitute the jojoba oil in the recipe for a vanilla-infused jojoba oil, even better! Though not needed in this recipe, cacao is also available as an absolute for use in aromatic products.
Whipped Body Butter-Scrub (for 4 oz. container)
4 oz. of whipped body butter (in volume)
2 tablespoons of coffee grounds
2 tablespoons of cane sugar
8 drops of Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata) essential oil
2 drops of Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides) essential oil
14 drops of Red Mandarin (Citrus reticulata) essential oil
I added only a small amount of essential oils for their aroma, and to enhance the benefit of this stress relief, self-care moment. I HAD to add ylang-ylang, as it is also a native plant from Costa Rica!
Enjoy, and as they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida!