Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mosaics and Chocolate

I do have paragraph breaks in here, but somehow everything is running together - and I can't seem to separate the paragraphs without losing photos.  So we'll just have to learn to live with it.

 Wandering around Puerto Viejo, we see all kinds of mosaics – it seems to be a common art form in Costa Rica.  So of course I take tons of photos of mosaics – in showers, in restaurants, in hotels, signs, etc.  
This is just a sampling – Café Viejo is a lovely Italian restaurant where we’ve had great pasta and a delicioso panna cotto con frutti di bosca (Italian cooked cream custard with berry sauce).  The floral designs are from a hotel we looked at – great mosaics, not such great rooms, and a very pushy person who showed us around and we didn’t much like her so we opted to stay at our funky two-story room.
We also had a repeat visit to the gelato place – funny how so many Italians have ended up in Puerto Viejo.  Apparently there are several Italian restaurants up and down the coast around here.  I chatted with one of the partners, he showed me the gelato machines in the kitchen – I think he liked the fact that I asked for the dark chocolate and also the caffe gelato – his comment was “perfetto!” – he and I agreed that this was THE perfect combination of gelato flavors.  Although Richard had the dark chocolate with some raspberry gelato, and that was also a wonderful combination.
Our afternoon was a trip to the ChocorArt chocolate farm – we started with a visit to their coffee shop, where I had a chocolate frio, iced chocolate drink.  (Richard had the brownie.)  They make their own chocolate using the chocolate they grow organically, pure unrefined cane sugar, and various spices they grow on the farm.
We had about an hour hike through the farm, where we saw various cacao trees with different kinds of cacao pods (and which the owner said is a fruit, not a vegetable – but it is definitely healthy for you!!!).  He cut down a ripe cacao pod and we tasted the white pulpy stuff, which is what the Mayans originally ate.  We got the whole history of chocolate, which originated in Venezuela, but then the Mayans and Aztecs and eventually the Incas spread the plants all over Central and South America, and of course the Spanish brought it back to Europe.  
Anyway, the Mayans ate the white pulpy stuff, which tastes okay but has a horribly slimey texture that I just can’t get past – bleah!  Like overcooked okra!  Anyhow, then the Aztecs figured out that drying and roasting the seeds (beans) made a great drink, and they added various spices.  The European monks who established missions in the Americas added sugar (well, honey) – and theobroma cacao, food of the gods, was born!
Oh, great story – at the end of the harvest, around the New Year, the cappuccino monkeys come down out of the hills and they eat the cacao pods – they climb the trees and twist off the pods, then climb way high into the trees and bang the pods against the tree to split them open.  Very smart monkeys, and they really love eating the cacao – the owner said this happens every year!  Other animals, like squirrels, climb and bite into the pods, but they only eat a little bit.  Agoutis eat the fallen pods sometimes, but not always.  So not only humans like cacao, but a whole lot of other animals!
After our hike, we saw the fermentation area, where the whole beans are left to sit in the sun – the white goopy pulp ferments, and it takes anywhere from a few days to two weeks for the stuff to ferment and dry out.  Then the whole beans go into a special drying rack where they sit in the sun and really dry out – again, a few days to two weeks, depending on the weather – and there’s a rolling roof to cover them up when it rains.
Then the beans are roasted over a fire, and when still warm they are crushed with a big stone – then the chaff is blown off, and the crushed beans are saved.  This is ground up – Richard and I both took turns grinding the beans, in something that was like a meat grinder, with the hand crank – and this is where the cocoa butter comes out of the beans, they come out almost like a very dark peanut butter, oily and dark and gloppy.  And of course the smell is WONDERFUL!!!!!  Like very dark chocolate!  The whole roasted beans taste delicious too!  Dark and rich and chocolatey, with absolutely no sweetness because no sugar has been added.
So – we started with a refreshing drink made from hibiscus and ginger – very nice!  Then we had a bit of the original cocoa drink, with cacao, honey, cinnamon, maybe cardamom.  Very tastey, although not what we normally think of as hot cocoa.  
Then the unrefined cane sugar was melted over the fire, and mixed with the ground cacao – this made almost a very thick chocolate fondue, which we ate out of little bowls – rich, intense, sweet, grainy, and delicious!  Oh wow, food of the gods indeed!
Our next treat – the owner showed us how when this is cooled, he forms the chocolate into rolls in waxed paper (after adding flavorings) – we tasted the chocolate chili combo, which was just spicey enough to give a little zing to the chocolate.
We had lots of questions (there were two young families from South Africa, and a man and his son from Montreal, so we all had questions), and a lot of conversation, and it was great fun!  Plus all kinds of butterflies fluttering by, and some kind of bee or wasp who showed up for the chocolate grinding – they didn’t fly into the chocolate, they just showed up to smell it.
We had a GREAT time – and that was just about it for the day.  We’re hanging out, catching up on internet stuff (when the server is working) – and we’ll see what tomorrow brings.  Maybe some beach time, and we’re still trying to arrange a manatee expedition.  I’ll keep you posted!  

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