Chocolate has to be one of the favorite snacks in the World. Despite its huge popularity, chocolate is relatively new in the World. It’s been available to humanity for enjoyment for only 5 centuries. Chocolate comes from a fruit that is native to Central America: Cacao. Native Central American civilizations, such as the Maya and the Aztecs knew and enjoyed Cacao centuries before Columbus stumbled upon the Continent in 1502. It was during his fourth and last voyage to “The Indies” that he finally came across Continental America.
Europe’s First Encounter with Cacao Was in Honduras!
Before reaching the continent, Columbus disembarked at what we know as the Island of Guanaja. This is one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. Columbus was in urgent need of water, and found this precious liquid in Guanaja. While anchored off the island, he encountered some natives in a large dugout canoe. Historians agree that they must have been Paya Indians, native to Honduras. They had their canoe loaded with provisions, and happened to have Cacao beans with them. These were of great value to them, and were zealously guarded by natives.
Columbus managed to barter with the natives and took the cacao seeds back to Spain. Soon, a new industry was born: Chocolate production was to begin in Europe! The natives did not use cacao as the sweet snack that we now know as chocolate. For them, it was an important ingredient that they drank with a mix of hot peppers. It was a beverage that only the upper social classes and native aristocracy could enjoy. Cacao soon became one of the top export products from new colonies in America towards Europe.
Switzerland, a country where the tropical Cacao plant would never grow, became a mayor chocolate producer and exporter. The Europeans chocolate loving taste buds soon began to demand more and more chocolate. Cacao plantations soon expanded beyond the original regional Central America plantations. These were now in South America, Africa and Asia. Chocolate soon became a mayor commodity around the world.
There is no doubt that Cacao is native to America. History does justice to Honduras as the place where Cacao was first introduced to Europeans. Archaeological excavations give us reason to believe that Cacao was actually first known and processed in Honduras. This is one of the most important and significant contributions of Honduras to our World!
Gourmet Artisan Chocolate Produced in Central America
There is a growing number of small gourmet chocolate productions taking place in Central America. Honduras is in the heart of this movement. World development agencies have identified Cacao as a cash crop that can have a positive impact on the local economies. Transforming the raw cacao fruit into chocolate increases the value of the finished product and creates many jobs in rural areas. Hence the effort to produce quality local chocolate.
The FHIA (Fundacion Hondurena de Investigacion Agricola) is a nonprofit foundation that was created by the Tela Railroad Company. Its goal is to promote the development of sustainable agriculture in Honduras. Their headquarters are in La Lima, close to the San Pedro Sula International Airport. FHIA has played a leading role in the effort to jump start the Cacao production in Honduras once again. They have identified the best cacao plants for the Honduras climate. FHIA helped create the knowledge to produce and process high quality cacao.
Cacao grows in a small bush like tree. The flowers bloom right off the main bush trunk and limbs, and the fruit usually hangs just off the main trunk. The fruit pods color range from a green to a yellow to a red, almost purple color. It has a hard, thick crust that covers the pulp and seeds inside. The pulp is white, and surrounds the seeds. It is sweet and pleasant, but does not taste at all like chocolate! These cacao pods are hand picked.
There are many similarities in the process that is followed in the production of coffee beans. Yet, the cacao process is much less industrialized and more labor intensive. I recently had the opportunity to visit a small, but sophisticated chocolate factory in the Cangrejal River Valley. This facility has its own cacao plantation. It is also promoting the expansion of current cacao plantations nearby.
Processing Cacao to Make Chocolate:
For the time being, the plantation is still young and not yet producing cacao pods. Because of this, they are purchasing cacao from different local producers. The cacao pods are hand selected, then cut in half with a knife to help extract the seeds inside it. Every cacao pod has at least dozen or so seeds. A meaty white pulp around the seeds is removed by hand before the seeds are set in a shack to ferment.
This is one of the most important processes to produce good chocolate, a proper fermentation. It is an art that few master, and is as important as the job of a brew master at a beer brewery or whisky blending facility. The climate and temperature have a lot to do with the proper process. Cacao seeds fermentation has turned into a unique and valued knowledge that only time and experience can provide. Usually, it will take between 4 and 6 days of fermentation before the cacao been is ready for the next process, which is drying the seed. This is another process that is a science in itself!
Drying the cacao seeds is a natural process, where the sun plays the most important role. It is a slow drying process, which can take an average of 25 days, depending on the weather and local humidity. Finally, once the cacao seeds are dry, they can process them into chocolate. For many years, these cacao seeds were all for export to Europe. There, they would transform them into chocolate. The facility I went to produces export quality chocolate right there! Of course, the process is part of their secret recipe; but the final product is not a secret and can can buy it throughout Honduras.
So now you know that indeed, cacao equals chocolate. Without cacao there is no chocolate. Many argue that without chocolate, there are fewer happy people in the World. Thus, I can even argue that cacao equals happiness. Many chocolate lovers will agree! While in Honduras, you can find many different cacao plantations along the north coast of the country. Around La Ceiba, you will find a nice working plantation in the grounds at the Lodge at Pico Bonito. The facility that I went to, Oro Maya, is at the Cangrejal River Valley.
Touring a Cacao Plantation in Honduras.
I invite you to ask your tour operator in Honduras for a tour of a Cacao Plantation. Tourist Options, in La Ceiba can arrange one for you. In Roatan, you may visit the Carambola Botanical Gardens in Sandy Bay to see a few cacao bushes. And since cacao equals chocolate, you will want to buy some chocolate to take home. We all have family and friends who are chocolate junkies. Friends and family will love a Honduras produced chocolate bar. Not only will they appreciate it, you will also be contributing to local sustainability in the rain forests of Honduras! You see cacao plantations grow better in the shade.
You can find the Oro Maya Chocolate bars around Honduras. In Roatan, you can find them at the Cruise Ship terminals and souvenir shops. At the Cangrejal River Valley, resorts such as Omega Tours Lodge and La Villa de Soledad have these bars for sale. Oro Maya markets its chocolate under the Honduras Chocolate Company brand. I must warn you though, it is so good, it can be addictive! Try it, I am sure you will love it! Take some home, and your family will love you for it! Enjoy!