Overland miles: 4465 Tacocount: 71 Days without sodas: 0
Granada – grander, more colourful and, ultimately, less interesting than its old rival Leon – was the next city on our colonial route through Western Nicaragua. Steakhouses, ice cream parlours and American style coffee shops flanked tree-lined boulevards leading off the main plaza (the preferred currency was dollars, naturally, with prices inflated accordingly); any remaining gaps were filled by Irish pubs offering fish and chips. This wasn’t what we had in mind when we set out to sample the real flavours of Nicaragua, and unable to afford filete jalapeño – the ‘local’ way of doing steak at US$16 a touch, we sloped off, disheartened, to a back-street fritanga for some fried pork on yucca.
It was only a little later that we smelt the unmistakable aroma of just-cooled toasted cacao from the same street, and noticed that a much smaller shop was selling divine artisan chocolate. It was made by the Chocolate Museum (aka Choco Museo), a block down from our hostel, so we decided to find out more about where their chocolate was coming from. It turns out that it comes from three other countries as well as here in Nicaragua: Peru, Guatemala and The Dominican Republic. These countries all have the ideal climate for growing cacao as they’re close to the Equator. Because we knew next to nothing about how chocolate is produced in this part of the world, we decided to sign up for their chocolate making class.
Clearly we weren’t able to witness the harvesting or drying of the cacao beans that precedes the process of making chocolate, although our teacher showed us a ripening pod growing on one of their ‘show’ plants in the courtyard behind the museum’s cafe. The plant carries out a sort of natural selection process on its own pods, allowing unproductive pods to wither and die on the stem, in order to concentrate its energies on their more durable siblings. One pod, once fully ripe, produces up to 60 beans, which are then shelled, dried for a few days in the sun before being toasted to release their full flavour.
The Choco Museo still shells and toasts all its beans by hand, using a sieve to sort the beans from the shelled nibs (husks), which are reserved to make their chocolate ‘tea’. Most Nicaraguan chocolate processors have now automated each stage of this process to create economies of scale. The museum did however employ a small grinding machine to pulverise the toasted beans down to a wet paste that creates the base for the chocolate. For the purposes of our class though, we were allowed to work up a proper sweat grinding them in our own pestle and mortars.
The Museum works with a cooperative set up to ensure that local cacao farmers are paid a fair price for their beans. There are now about 30 such organisations across the country, representing around 6,500 family-owned cacao plantations. The majority of the cooperatives’ product is exported to Germany, for quality chocolate brands like Rittter Sport. I have to admit that the connection between chocolate and fitness always alluded me, until I spent ten minutes trying to grind down the granite-like beans. Once we had gratefully passed our mortars over to our teacher to speed up the final part of this stage, we were able to recreate the favourite chocolate beverages of the Nicaraguans’ ancestors.
We started by mixing the bean paste with hot water and spices (cinnamon and black pepper for a kick), plus honey as the sweetener, to imitate the way the Maya made their drinking chocolate. The drink was very important to Mayan life and ritual, and was deliberately concocted with a bitter, spicy taste as it represented the blood that the Mayan kings offered to their gods (their name for cacao, theobeoma, literally means ‘food of the gods’). We then added a sprinkling of chilli to taste the drink as the Aztecs would have made it: this gave it a warm, punchy aftertaste that made it my favourite version of the afternoon. And finally we substituted milk for the water and newly discovered sugar for the honey to reproduce the drink the way the Spanish conquistadores enjoyed it.
Crucial to all versions was mixing up the paste, liquid and spices fully: whilst we had swizzle sticks to aid the muddling process, the chocolate addicts of Latin America’s past would have poured the mixture from one cup to another at great height. Inevitably our teacher egged us on to attempt this method ourselves. It goes without saying that Clare was a lot steadier with her arm and consequently neater with her pour than I, who made an embarrassing puddle on the kitchen counter. For a while though I did feel a little bit like Tom Cruise in Cocktail – without the strong alcohol, amazing teeth or questionable beliefs.
When it finally came to putting all our choxology skills to the test and making our own batch of chocolate, however, alcohol was definitely at the forefront of my mind. We were asked what flavours we would like to add our 70% bar (the percentage indicates the ratio of cacao to sugar, so the higher the percentage, the more bitter the final product will be). Clare wisely selected almonds and salt, which created a smooth, brittle bar with a delicately sweet and sour flavour. But ever since we had delved into the world of rum production in Leon, I had imagined how well its distinctive mellow, fruity taste would marry with something bittersweet. So I went for a rum ‘n’ raisin combo, using Flor de Caña Extra Lite.
In fairness, ‘extra light’ wasn’t a term anyone would instinctively apply to my final product. It had cooled to a dark and sludge-like consistency – you didn’t so much break a piece off the bar to eat it, than pull a wad of it from the misshapen doughy lump. But somehow the fruity, heady flavours of my rum and chocolate concoction worked together. It’s my guess that’s not how the Maya would have appreciated their fertile crops, but it certainly had the taste of Nicaragua stamped all over it.