“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
-Charles M. Schulz 
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While visiting the Dominican Republic, M and I wanted to experience some new to us foodie adventures, so a day trip to the El Sendero del Cacao, an organic cacao farm, was a must! As we drove down the entrance to the farm, I started spotting the trees hanging low with cacao pods on their trunks and branches and screamed of joy! I’ve seen plenty of photos of the trees, but never a real one and this was a dream come true!
As a welcome treat to the farm, we were served a thick hot chocolate spiced with fresh ginger and organic cacao. Let me just tell you, I begged for this recipe to no avail. It was rich and decadent, with just the right about of ginger. As we settled in and walked around the farm, we breathed in fresh air dotted with the smell of chocolate – both from the hot chocolate in our hands as well as the trees surrounding us. Our tour group was small and held in English for the ease of everyone in the group – our tour guide being a native of the area and well versed in the cacao field. It all started with the history of how cacao reached the Caribbean and we had the opportunity to plant our own baby tree.

Planting my first cacao tree

Walking into the forest of cacao trees, you instantly fall into a spell – the fresh greenery surrounds you, and you start spotting tree after tree filled with cacao pods of different varieties and colors. Your head spins – this is seriously a dream come true if you’re a chocolate lover. We learned that the entire farm is organic, using natural methods to keep pests away, since rats and woodpeckers are also tempted by the raw cacao. Our tour guide mentioned that one of the best methods to control rats in the farm were snakes and I shuddered, not wanting to encounter any snakes on this tour (which we thankfully did not!) The issue with woodpeckers is that they won’t even eat the fruit; they’ll hammer into the pods and expose the pulp, without consuming it. They’ll then fly away and wait a few days, while the pulp is infested with insects. THEN they’re back, to eat up all the yummy bugs in the pulp. Crazy huh?! To avoid many woodpeckers, scarecrows are strategically placed around the farm.

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After falling in love with the surrounding trees and wanting to live alongside them, our guides shared with us the method of harvesting manually. See, not all cacao pods ripen at the same time, so being able to manually detach them from the trees is crucial, so the other pods stay on the tree and finish their cycle.

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We had the opportunity to taste what the fresh cacao pulp and let me tell you, I could eat it for days! It’s  a little mushy and sweet like a banana, with a slight tartness, like a guava. Definitely, the banana flavor was present and then we were told that banana and plantain trees were planted in between the cacao trees to aid in bringing shade to the trees. Thus, the similar flavors!
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After harvest, the pods are placed in fermentation tanks to release the liquid and pulp, and start developing the flavors we look for in chocolate. The strong smell of alcohol/yeast reminded me of being a bread baker in Colorado. It’s an intense smell, but one I love!
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After the fermentation process, comes the drying. The farm uses the bright and hot Caribbean sun to take care of drying the pods for them, which is an eco-friendly way for sure! The pods are dried and in the process crack to reveal the cacao nibs inside!
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And below, the end result before turning the dried pods into chocolate, which you can also do onsite! Inside the chocolate labs, you’ll pulverize the pods into tiny specks and run them through a conch, which will showily turn it into a liquid form. Depending on the chocolate you make, milk, sugar, and flavorings can be added. You’ll learn how to quickly temper chocolate and make your own bar to take home!
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A well-rounded and extremely informative tour that takes you from seedling to final chocolate bar is a great way to learn more about one of our favorite foods, chocolate! Learn more about how to take the tour while in Dominican Republic by visiting their website and liking them on Facebook.
Disclaimer: We were invited on the Cacao Tour free of charge; all our opinions and photography are 100% our own!

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  1. Nelly this post is really wonderful!! I am so excited you had the opportunity to go, what a fun foodie experience:-) I was always curious how the fresh pods tasted, that is really interesting they grow banana and plantain trees with them. Thank you for sharing!!!! Hugs, Terra

  2. I love this post! So much information, so insightful. Hope you bookmarked & put this on the Google+ authorship (see Chef Dennis post) so that if folks need to look up info on the Dominican Republic cacao industry – then your blog is the place to go to. Thanks for sharing, Nelly! And thank you for your kind support!

  3. It sounds as if you had a great trip!

    Having visited Grenada and seen up close and personal how the cacao trees are once again growing on that island (after past hurricanes in 2004 & 2005 devastated it), I have an inkling of how much you really enjoyed visiting the cacao farm in the Dominican Republic.

    The various categories of cacao trees that grow around the globe are fascinating! Over the centuries, there have been serious losses of certain categories of them d/ t vulnerability to disease or pestilence–so sad since world-wide demand for the products produced from them continue to grow.

    Sustainable organic farming practices that aim to improve survival odds for the trees certainly need to be encouraged! The survival of cacao trees is of concern d/t changing climate conditions threatening not only their very existence, but also the survival of workers in that industry. Scientific American had some coverage of this in their The Future of Chocolate issue from February 2012. Their issue raising the question Is Cocoa the Brain Drug of the Future? is online for March 2013.

    Glad you mentioned about the organic cacao farm you visited in the Dominican Republic.

    Stephanie in NY

    P.S. Last week I started a short blog series on Demystifying Chocolate and Cacao (in honor of Valentine’s Day) and now have up two posts you might enjoy (a third will show up in the near future):
    Part 1 of 3 : http://bit.ly/12Q5W1p
    Part 2 of 3: http://bit.ly/W60X5K