Villa Vanilla Cocoa and Vanilla
Vanilla and Cocoa are both native to Central America. Combined with a small amount of sugar and a little bit of work, the end product is chocolate. To tell this story correctly, I think it is best to start with the cocoa.
This is a cocoa tree. Yes, chocolate literally does grow on trees.
The fruit are more like squash than anything else. They must be harvested from the tree and then cut open to reveal the seeds. The seeds are covered with a very tasty, slimy membrane.
I could have eaten 100 of them. It was like eating citrusy, slimy, gum with a hint of chocolate. To make the cocoa beans, these seeds are placed in a box with holes on the bottom to drain and allowed to ferment. The membrane slowly disappears and you get a raw seed that looks like this:
These seeds are then roasted at 350° for a short time and the cocoa beans are done.
Then, they can be crushed into cocoa chips, or processed further. Cocoa has a natural butter in it and continual processing will make a paste. On Villa Vanilla, they use an organic approach with everything, so they manually crushed the cocoa beans using rocks. The original process used the wind to blow away the chaff. Villa Vanilla took that approach, but upgraded to using fans to blow off the chaff so they are not at the whims of the winds.
Cocoa by itself tastes like a fresh, slightly bitter, slightly acidic chocolate. If you read our first post on Villa Vanilla, you will see that we drank a traditional chocolate drink. This is the powder or paste that was mixed with our water.
Vanilla is a very labor intensive crop. It is an orchid that starts in the ground and climbs up a host removing itself from the ground completely. In the wild, these vines reach 50 to 60 feet high. At the farm, the host plants (like the cinnamon tree, allspice tree, or other crop) are kept at about 8 feet tall so it is easier to farm the vanilla. Only one bee in the world will pollinate a vanilla vine but they naturally stay high above the ground pollinating fruit high in trees and won’t pollinate these low vines (Bees, besides being kind of jerks running around stinging my children apparently don’t want to work either). Every flower is pollinated by hand on the farm and them marked by date. For months, the vanilla beans grow but must be harvested at the right time. The correct time to harvest them is just before the bean breaks open and releases the seeds, typically 8-9 months after pollination.
The beans grow on a “hand” on the plant. Here’s a picture of one in the fields.
Once the beans have reached maturity, they are hand picked. Then, they are placed in a plastic bag and de-oiled as they ferment in the sun. This process takes about two weeks. After this, they are put in the sun for two hours per day before being placed in a styrofoam box to cool, which pulls out some of the water in them. Condensate builds on the box and over about two months the beans dry out from a starting level of about 80% water to 20-25% water. A good bean will be the consistency of beef jerky. It should not be hard. The beans will last for a very long time.
The beans can then be used directly in cooking, or made into an extract. To make extract, the beans are split open and placed in alcohol. The higher the proof, the better. The inner seeds inside the bean are called vanilla caviar. Vanilla beans are like wine, they continue to get better with age! They become more and more concentrated as long as they are properly stored. To properly store a vanilla bean, store them in room temperature in a glass container. They will last almost forever like this!
Together, these two plants make one of the finest delicacies in the world. Remember how I said the cocoa was a little bitter and acidic? n addition to adding flavor, vanilla also removes acidity and bitterness. With a small amount of sugar (I’m not talking halloween candy amounts, I mean SMALL amounts of sugar because that is all you need), you get chocolate.
In my head, I was expecting to have something like a dark chocolate. NOPE. Even with very little sugar, it was sweet, fresh, and delicate to eat. It was probably the most delicious chocolate I’ve ever eaten! Our guide also reminded us that chocolate is actually very good for your health! That is, chocolate that is at least 60% cocoa. This sounds like a health regiment I can firmly stand behind.