Monday, October 19, 2015

The Importance of Making Chocolate, Part One

Arcelia Gallardo is a F2F volunteer currently working in Panama with chocolate makers affiliated with Partners of the Americas' EducaFuturo Program. Here is Arcelia's account of the the first few days on assignment!

Cacao can grow from southern Mexico to Bolivia; Panamas humid, wet, tropical climate offers great conditions for growing the fruit. But in the world of chocolate and cocoa, Panama is a country that is rarely talked about, though its neighbors like Costa Rica and Venezuela receive a lot of attention. Prized cacao comes from Peru, Belize and Ecuador. Brazil has cities the size of small countries dedicated to growing cacao and Paris holds the largest chocolate show in the world, and the Swiss consume the most chocolate per person on the globe. 

So where does that leave Panama? I am not sure. I hope that after my adventure with the women of Changuinola in the north of Panama, I will be able to better understand what role they want to hold in the global chain of chocolate.

Upon arriving to Panama City my first mission was to find chocolate. I wanted to understand what Panamanians considered to be chocolate. I was not surprised to find the big names like Snickers and M&M’s, but I was more surprised that I didn’t find a local brand. It would be the equivalent to finding bananas grown in Africa or other countries, sold here in Panama … even though a large number are grown in Panama. That’s bananas!!

Now that I have seen and tasted the cacao and learned a bit more (Panama is 31st on the list of cocoa growers in terms of global volume), I am able to say that Panama has some great quality cacao but there are small quantities. In the eyes of a smart chocolate maker, this is GOLD. As a chocolate maker in the USA or Europe it is incredibly difficult to be the only one with a certain origin. Yes, there is always the first person to discover it but then everyone else will catch on in a few years. I can see Panama being an origin of cacao that is very high quality and exclusive.

I explain this to the Ngabe women as they sit in front of me and they seem confused. What I see in my head might be a little different than what they can imagine. I pause for a second and open my laptop. I search three chocolate companies, Hasslacher’s (England), ChocoVivo (USA), and Mutari (USA). “Drinking chocolate is becoming very popular and people see it as a very natural, healthy, delicious drink.” I show them the products these companies offer and they all comment, some in Spanish, some in Ngabe, about the packaging; they are fascinated by the packaging and the fact that gringos would be interested in consuming something they see as a normal every day thing.

I point out origins to them, “This is from Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador … but do you see anything here from Panama?” They all agree they do not. “This means you have something very special here.”

We begin our first day of roasting and they are doing a great job; t
hey are constantly stirring, touching the beans, making sure the fire doesn’t get too hot or low, they take a bean out and taste to see if it’s ready. We collectively decide when it’s ready and we remove the cacao from the fire. We wait for it to cool then put it in the molino to break the beans. Once we have a small batch cracked, one woman goes outside to window … she uses the wind to remove the husk from the nib. This process is very delicate; no one is able to do this without many years of practice. All industrial chocolate makers have machines for this. 

Since we are making small batch and artisanal chocolate, this process takes us most of the day and we decide to leave the chocolate making for tomorrow!

Stay tuned to read the rest of Arcelia's volunteer trip to Panama!
Interested in more chocolate? Check out Rebecca Roebber's post here

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