Radicals of Chocolate: The way Origins tell a story
The taste of Chocolate has been on the tip of my tongue since it could formulate words. There’s an exceptional piece of Dandelion Chocolate beside me as it assists the creativity to fuel this story…and for over one week, I’ve been sharing my first batch of crafted chocolate with anyone around me, in hopes to share the extravagant story of this unique ingredient and geek out on the journey of its whole process.
So what is it about chocolate that gets us all ‘wild’? And why are many people, like me, so attracted to this substance?
There are so many ways we can begin to answer these questions depending on one’s own life experiences and personal opinions, but at an attempt to build an objective viewpoint for this curiosity, I want to enter this quest by tracing us back to the roots — the radicals of chocolate.
The most recognized definitions and uses of the word ‘radical’ are def. 3a. very different from the usual or traditional or def. 3b. favouring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions (Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/radical)
At its core, and for the purpose of this story, I will be using the word radical in relation to its original expression:
rad·i·cal | \ ˈra-di-kəl \
- of, relating to, or proceeding from a root
- of or relating to the origin
What do we find at the radicals of chocolate? What lives at Origin that has contributed to the emergence of the micro market of ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate?
Whether it’s a conscious decision or not, I believe many makers and consumers that are wrapped into an elaborate version of chocolate — whether ‘craft,’ ‘ethically sourced,’ ‘direct trade,’ etc. — are doing so with the desire to express greater creativity, a deeper sense of meaning, and really, a longing for connection.
When talking about food, or a taste, or a recipe — which Chocolate is all of these — the way of perspective that must be adopted is the observation of relationships and collaborative efforts involved in the outcome or product. To know or feel connection to something is to see through the many layers that constitute it. As John Muir, the great environmental philosopher once wrote,
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
So when speaking about Chocolate, we simultaneously enter a web of systems as intricate as data science — and although not as established — certainly comparable to the supply webs of coffee and wine. Let’s pull on the ethical string that connects any craft chocolate maker to the world of the producer — the world of Origins. For chocolate, this looks something like this…
It just so happens that many, many years after my first encounter with the taste of chocolate, I ended up living in a place just like this! It is here I began to grasp my connection to the ‘food of the gods’ and to discover the vital link between the mysterious and playful notes of chocolate in respect to its wild jungle ecosystem.
The great food writer Michael Pollen says, “You are what you eat, eats too.”
I moved to the lush jungles of Belize in 2013 with my family, on a spontaneous and enthusiastic mission to re-connect to wild land and re-establish a deeper relationship to our wild self. Our thriving and ever-growing project, Sattva Land, is a Wholistic Lifestyle Centre rooted at the base of the Maya Mountains in the Stann Creek region of Belize. We combine old Italian traditions with the mystique of ancient philosophies and the edge of the progressive. We move, shake, build, design, study, cook, explore, grow, and embody…the full spectrum of a regenerative lifestyle. Through living this way, I’ve exposed my vision to the recognition of webs and layers rather than the limitation of boxes and lines.
For anyone who has ever spent quality time with the jungle, this may resonate.
When I discovered that chocolate was growing all around me, it was almost unbearable. A stream of inspiration flooded me, and as my living memory of chocolate linked to its complex and unknown territory… I felt the beginning of a grand adventure. As a chocolate devotee, I thought to myself, “I must meet the source of chocolate” and “I want to get to know the whole enticing process of crafting a chocolate bar.” Passions and desires that sat as patient seeds suddenly swelled and burst, right on the land they were meant to sprout on.
My journey with cacao really set foot when I met with a fellow Permaculture student in Belize, Marco, who inherited his grandfather’s cacao farm and took over the care of the cacao production. I was invited to visit him and the trees, and it is with no hesitation that I agreed to meet in the even-denser forests of the deep South.
I arrived to San José, the cacao capital of the country, and was welcomed by breathing hillsides dotted with friendly Mopan Maya communities.
Walking into the cacao grove was an experience of pure joy. Seeing 50+ year old trees bearing the full spectrum of a painter’s palate in the interior of a virgin rainforest simply awakens the child inside.
This small plantation lives under the canopy of hardwood and medicinal trees, palms that generate a thatch roof, leguminous trees that keep up with the demand of nitrogen, as well as large, intimidating and flamboyant herbaceous species that enclose much of the nutritional and medicinal needs of the Maya people. That day, I helped Marco with his harvest and got to learn the tricky ways to decipher when a cacao pod is ripe and ready for picking. I tasted the seeds in their pungent-sour-fruity state and felt awe about the mysterious ways we ever decided to experiment with the entanglement of fermentation…
We learnt through practice that by facilitating certain conditions for selected microorganisms to come to contact with the wet beans, both the taste and structure of the bean would alter. Our appreciation for this has grown exponentially as we began to link chocolate as we know it — with its particular nuances and addictive aromatics — back to its co-dependant roots. Arguably, it is fermentation in itself, with its agitated interaction and transmission of information, that sets the stage for the cultural development of cacao in our varied world views and traditions. Fermentation master, Sandor Katz, has noted on this connection also:
“I keep coming back to the profound significance of the fact that we use the same word — culture — to describe the community of bacteria that transforms milk into yogurt, as well as the practice of subsistence itself, language, music, art, literature, science, spiritual practices, belief systems, and all that human beings seek to perpetuate in our varied and overlapping collective existences.” (Katz, The Art of Fermentation, p. 6)
When I left the farm, I felt embedded into a culture that truly engages with this dual meaning. I felt changed and indefinitely inspired to know more. I began to research on the ancestral interpretation of the cacao plant, Theobroma cacao being its Latin name, derivative of Greek ‘theos’ meaning ‘God’ and ‘broma’ meaning ‘food.’
It is with little surprise that this ‘food of the gods’ maintains an active and growing partnership between plants and humans — it has its roots embedded deeply into our past, with stories and practices related to our cosmology, livelihood, commerce, tradition, and identity.
The original roots of cacao took ground along the margins of the equatorial line, where surprisingly, the country of Ecuador lands. It is here, thousands of years ago, that cacao claimed a home. Some wild species of Theobroma have also been found in parts of Mesoamerica, which later became the birthplace of cacao’s domestication. Through practical and intuitive engagement, the Olmec civilization of Southern Mexico developed the first uses of the plant, which later was adopted by the Maya of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
For the Maya, cacao was a keystone plant in both ritualistic and cultural spheres of life, used often in support of men and women’s initiation rites as well as in distinctive events throughout the Mayan calendar year. The participation of Aztecs into the world of cacao came later, as Mayan power decreased and the Aztecs conquered rule. Situated in the highlands of Central Mexico, the Aztecs could not grow cacao but did recognize its economical worth. They soon established a tax system with the Maya, where they would ask to be payed in cacao beans, with the intention to build up their own supply. Unlike the Mayans, having and drinking cacao was a luxury for the Aztecs — only some could afford this symbol of wisdom and power.
In Mesoamerican creation myths, the character of the Feathered Serpent — K’uk’u’um K’an in Itzà Maya, K’uk’ulkan in Yucatec and Tzotzil Maya, Quetzalcoatl in Aztec and most of the world — is a deity known as the God of Vegetation, a connection between Earth and Sky, and symbol of duality and vital energy. It is depicted to be a plumed serpent that gifted cacao to the Maya people and chose to live at the base of the cacao tree.
“And then, he saw them. The wings. Two large, iridescent wings, folded down low along her body. Feathers, real feathers like that of a bird, long and resplendent like those of a quetzal, large and strong like those of a condor.”
(Birgitte Rasine, The Jaguar and the Cacao Tree)
Although we may have lost touch to some of the mythical and traditional practices with the cacao plant, it is inevitable that this electric substance will remind us of its charismatic nature in one way or another, and in ways suitable to its time…
What is being highlighted now in the chit-chatter of chocolate enthusiasts is cacao’s radiating health benefits. Comparable to the size of a pecan nut, the cacao seed is composed of Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids, an impressive content of magnesium, flavonol antioxidants, amino acids and the notable traces of pharmacologically active components such as theobromine, phenylethylamine, anandamide and tryptophan. In synthesis, the chemical constituents of cacao build what we have discovered to be its mood-elevating, mind-activating, and heart-opening qualities. For this, yet again, we can give credit to the source of its nutrition and unique composition — the soils of origin.
Nutrition lives at origin. Stories live at origin. Culture lives at origin.
It is for these reasons and a plethora more that I made the decision to plummet my hands in the soils of cacao, in its wild ecology and vibrant colours, and its continuous nature of charm and surprise. Since working with Marco and his family, I have felt the support I needed to plunge into this journey and vitalize the dream to get to know chocolate from the roots up.
This year, in collaboration with a family of experts, I’ve had the opportunity to carefully select seed, formulate methods of natural fertilization, graft a variety of species and design the area of planting. Because cacao loves the ambiguous nature of the jungle, it assures the growing model to be a regenerative one — interplanted amongst lumber and nut trees, medicinal herbs, and Eastern-inspired culinary spices. This experience alone has offered me plenty of time spent in the true wilderness of nature and amongst the endless forms of wisdoms present there.
In summary, I’ve come to recognize that the story cacao shares with the world — its particular ecology, its substantial relationship with the people of our past and present world, and the ways it affects us on a molecular level — clearly shapes an overall theme.
I see cacao as a connective tool. It has a loud voice for the greatness of the small, and the outstanding efforts of collaborative action.
I believe as growers, this can be highlighted by adopting the original and essential ecology of chocolate: wild, diverse, dynamic, and regenerative. As craft makers, it is essential to transfer these qualities into the chocolate — with transparency — passing on the story cacao wants to tell. For anyone involved in the industry who cares about matters deeper than the wrapper…
The way cacao is grown and cared for, matters.
The way it is exchanged and moved, matters.
The way it is transformed, matters.
As this awareness propels into action, we can assure cacao to fulfill its original purpose — to connect, to reveal and to expand. For a ‘prototyping’ culture searching for ways to root and create harmonious relationships with the planet…