After our foray into the Nicaraguan jungle in search of the ancient heirloom cacao, meeting with farmers along the way, it was now time to harvest the beautiful golden-red pods of deliciousness we had gathered. Have you ever wondered what makes chocolate taste like, well, often many more things than just chocolate? It’s not as simple as you might think.
People say that the human palette can taste up to 400 different flavours in a plain dark (70% +) chocolate bar: ranging from the more sensible red berries, wine or spices, through to the more unusual and down right bizarre; tobacco leaves, wet leather and ‘the smell of the forest floor after a day of rain’ – hmmm. Not all at once though, that would be flavour explosion madness and cause much confusion in the mouth.
There are many factors effecting the flavour of chocolate in it’s early stages, long before we get to the production of creating that molten brown edible heaven. Location in which cacao is grown and strain of cacao are the most well-known flavour effectors. So prior to harvest, the pods must be sorted – a fun, yet arduous task that can be quite a challenge to differentiate the 6 main types (Rugoso, Nicalizo, Chuno, Barba, Medalla and Johe), as, although you have basic characteristics to look out for, there are many variables. You need a highly trained, expert eye to ensure accuracy; something which, after three days in the field assessing pods, we were just beginning to the get hang of. Pods are first divided by colour – green and yellow in one pile, orange and red in the other, then we divide further based on ‘tail’ (pointy bit at the end of the pod) shape and position, and pod shape. Now we have our four types it’s time to start harvesting. The six main types that Ingemann harvest, as mentioned above, are all varieties of Trinitario Acriollados, native to Nicaragua.
But, being able to tell a type of cacao from the shape of pod and pointyness of it’s tail isn’t always a successful indication as to if it is ripe or not, and, unlike most fruiting trees, cacao pods do not fall off when they are ripe. So, whilst harvesting the pods – cracking them open with a wooden mallet on a rock and scooping out the gooey fragrant flesh within – we must be on the ball to spot any pods whose seeds have begun to germinate, or have gone mouldy inside, as unfortunately, they are no good for us.
We only have a limited time as the collection truck is on its way and we still have about 70 or so pods to go; the buckets are filling up well, and there are piles of husks beside each of us, as well as a few stray seeds. After each bucket is filled, it’s time to quality check – ensuring there is no placenta (hard flesh to which the seeds are attached) that has made its way into the buckets. Then it’s time for weighing, pH and sugar checks, before tipping each bucket into it’s respective wooden crate on the back of the truck.
pH measurements will tell us the strain of cacao in each bucket – whether or not it is Ingemann strain cacao, or another strain has got into the mix, the ideal pH should be 3.5 at wet mass for best fermentation results. Sugar is measured using a Brix meter to measure the ‘°Bx’ or degrees Brix of sugar content in an aqueus solution, which should be 18/19°Bx. If lower then this indicates water has been added to increase the weight of the wet mass. pH balance and sugar ratio are both contributing factors to the fermentation of cacao and development of its flavour, recent studies suggest fermentation is considered to be the most important process in flavour development of chocolate, possibly more important for developing flavours in cocoa than it is for wines.
We arrive back in civilisation and are reunited with the harvest crates at Ingemann’s sorting facility, now it’s time to really get to grips with the science of flavour. We meet the truck in the car park and begin unloading the crates, and so the science lesson continues. The seeds have been in their crates overnight, and with a couple of banana leaves thrown in, they have already begun their fermentation process.
Banana leaves, like the fruit, give off ethylene gas – a naturally occurring hormone produced during the ripening stage of some fruits which helps the plant to flower, produce fruit and then drop its leaves. In this case it encourages the fermentation of the flesh of the cacao seeds, which is the first process that effects the flavour of cacao, and the end result; chocolate. The sides of the crates are already frothing with fermented cacao seed juices and it smells remarkably like a brewery when stood next to the truck! Once unloaded the crates are taken to the fermentation area of the facility, an area which smells even more like a brewery. Here they are tipped into the top of three levels of crate, where they will remain for the next 36 hours, after which they will be ‘turned’ (tipped down into the wooden crate below). This turning process enables oxygen to be naturally pumped into the fermenting mass, again aiding in fermentation.
During this fermentation process spot checks are carried out to assess the pH levels of the beans inside their fleshy jackets. This involves taking spot samples of beans, slicing off the flesh and crushing in distilled water with a pestle and mortar.
But the care and research into how to nurture some of the worlds’ best flavour cacao beans doesn’t stop there, various different methods of drying are also being assessed – including pre-drying in a drying ‘tunnel’ on wooden racks before being laid out in big concrete or steel troughs – this is to find out the ideal drying process and platform that ensures the beans retain no more than 5% moisture and no less than 3% moisture. And of course, there is the final stage that Ingemann take part in, which is sorting the fermented dried beans prior to packaging; this is done on a bean sorting machine which sees man and machine working together in harmony, although for smaller batches it is still done completely by hand. All ‘double’ beans who have become stuck together, are rejected, along with the skinny and underdeveloped beans. All these beans, although rejected, are in fact put to good use with the locals who love using them for the traditional Nicaraguan drink Pinolillo – a delicious mixture of corn, crushed cacao beans and honey, or whatever else you fancy to sweeten it, all churned up with some ice cold milk – perfect for after a hot days’ work on the farm!
After bean sorting then a cut test is done before packaging, this ensures there are no bad beans – mouldy, slaty, under-fermented, over-fermented. Then, there is one final stage Ingemann carry out in order to help their customers decide which strain of cacao beans to purchase. They small-batch-roast their dried beans to assess the flavour once they have roasted, from this, flavour profiles are developed for each of the strains, which are then labelled, that assist Ingemann’s customers in selecting which strain of cacao to use for their products.