OUR THIRD VISIT TO THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC; OUR SIXTH AND SEVENTH TO CHOCAL

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Type “Chocal” into the search box above, and a list of several blog posts will appear that I have written about Chocal, the women’s cooperative chocolate factory and cacao plantation in the Dominican Republic (the DR).  In all, Bruce and I participated in Fathom’s Impact Travel program at Chocal seven times; three visits during our January 1st Fathom Adonia cruise, twice on our March 12 cruise, and twice on our final visit to the DR, during the week of April 9, 2017.

Those earlier blog posts included information about how Chocal was established (although I didn’t mention how the factory replaced what was once a nightclub hangout for drug dealers and other criminals).  I wrote about the benefits Chocal has provided the thirty women and 130 families of the Altamira community.  The chocolate-making process was also described, from bean to bar, including photos I shot of the cacao processing machinery.  Our volunteer contributions were also detailed including the impact our work groups made on Chocal’s production.

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Although cacao beans are very bitter to bite into, the white pulp surrounding the beans is sweet and delicious!  I was given the remainder of the seeds in this pod to suck on and enjoy– about half of the 50 seeds it contained.  

Since then, the cumulative impact has grown as more and more Fathom passengers volunteered at Chocal.  As of April 15 of this year (the one year anniversary of Fathom Adonia’s first sailing), 4,419 passengers have visited Chocal and sorted 5,186 pounds of cacao nibs, resulting in 152,994 finished chocolate products.  In addition, since the neighboring cacao plantation nursery was added to the Impact Travel program, 29,920 cacao seeds were planted.  Of those, roughly 75% will grow to become cacao trees. In three years, those trees will be each produce about 20 pods ready to harvest each May and November for the next 30-40 years.  Each of those pods will contain about 50 seeds—enough to produce a 2-ounce bar of chocolate to be sold in the Dominican Republic.  (In addition, Chocal exports cacao nibs to Canada and the U.S.A., earning $2 per pound.)

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The inside of a cacao seed is very bitter!

Bruce and I made a personal impact at Chocal as well, bringing a box of ear plugs to the factory workers (when we visited in March) with promises to send more if the workers cared enough about preserving their hearing to use the ear plugs regularly.

I also brought memories with me during that second visit, giving each of the workers photo notecards I had made of the photos I had taken of them last January.  Their reactions and expressed gratitude was gratifying and left a lasting warmth in our hearts.

Our final Fathom Adonia voyage was during the week before Easter (a very important holiday in the DR), and we were there the day before and day of Good Friday.  As a result, many of the women of Chocal were home cooking and preparing for the holiday, so we didn’t get to see some of them again as we had hoped.  Still, our two visits were special, memorable, and heart-warming.

We arrived once again with an armful of photo notecards—this time, made with photos of our Chocal friends holding the cards I had given them in March; and, we brought another box of ear plugs to keep them well-stocked for a while.

Our bus driver, Diosiris Dipre (“Dipre”) was the same one we had last March, and he appeared very happy to see us again!  His sincere gratitude for such a simple gesture of giving a photograph reminded me of how random acts of kindness can make such a positive impact.

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Our bus driver, Dipre & IDDI facilitator, Juan

Gumarcindo, the nursery’s manager, also welcomed us warmly once again and laughed heartily when I gave him another photo card.  I wish I would have remembered to take another picture of him holding his card, because the photo on the card showed him holding the card I gave him in March that had the picture I took of him in January on it! We got so busy working at the nursery, I completely forgot.  It’s another one of those photos that got away…

Our IDDI facilitator on the bus with us this time was Juan, an IDDI rep we had seen during previous visits, but hadn’t gotten to know, since he was on the other bus in the past.  The guy is a hoot, and we had a lot of laughs with him during both of our days going to Chocal.  His grandmother works at the factory, and even though she didn’t speak any English, we managed to form a bond through smiles and gestures.

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Juan

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Juan’s grandmother

Steven, another IDDI facilitator was there once again, and he seemed happy to see us and start another round of teasing, picking up from where we left off in March.

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Steven & Bruce

As we saw the women, one-by-one, throughout our time at the factory, each one recognized us and greeted us with hugs.  It was nice to be remembered once again!

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At one point, though, I had a brief moment of sadness when we passed through the office to work in the packaging area, and Bruce noticed the box of ear plugs we had given them in March.  The box was sitting on top of a high pony wall in the exact same place where it had been left after I demonstrated to the president how to use the ear plugs.  When Bruce saw what appeared to be the unused box and told me about it, he had a disappointed look on his face.  He said, “I don’t think they’ve touched those ear plugs since you gave them the box.”  My heart sank, and I wondered whether I should even give them the second box I had brought.  Not giving it a second thought, I doubled back to check the box for myself.  Just as I opened it and noticed it only two-thirds full, Milagros (the factory manager) walked in and exclaimed, “Si!  Si!!” as she pointed to her ears and smiled.  The workers were in fact using the ear plugs, and they were very grateful to receive more!  That made my day.

After our work session officially ended and the others shopped in the gift shop, Bruce and I stayed behind to give one last push of sorting beans.  As a final parting “gift”, Steven took me back into the factory where we had molded chocolates, gave me a plastic glove, and told me to hold out my hand.  In it landed a palm-ful of warm chocolate from the bowl we had worked from to create our little chocolate works of “art”.  I will never forget how gooood that chocolate tasted as I licked every bit up!  I savored it slowly knowing it could very well be the last visit we ever make to Chocal.

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Coming up next:  OUR REUNION WITH THE WOMEN OF REPAPEL

 

 

OUR RETURN TO CHOCAL

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The early evening light cast a beautiful golden glow on the shores of Puerto Plata, and our arrival to Amber Cove was magical.  After enjoying the sail into port from the aft deck, we took in the views of the cove from our balcony, as we got ready to head to the dining room for another delicious dinner.  That night, I was getting so excited to see our amigos and amigas at Chocal the following morning that it was difficult to get good sleep.

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Sunrise behind Amber Cove

After breakfast, we grabbed the box of ear plugs and stack of photo notecards I made for everybody and eagerly hiked out to the buses.  Leurys from IDDI (Dominican Institute for Integral Development) spotted us immediately and greeted both of us with a big hug and “thank you”.  Back in January, she had admired the fused glass earrings I had been wearing, and since Bruce had made them, it was easy enough to give her an identical pair.  Bruce offered to send her some as a gift; however, we were unsure of the mail service; so, I sent them along with a friend of mine who sailed on Fathom’s Adonia, in February.

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When we arrived to Altamira (“high view”), our bus load of volunteers started out working at the cacao plantation.  “Hola, Gumarcindo!  Que lo que?!  (What’s up?)”  As soon as he heard my voice, Gumarcindo turned around and greeted me and Bruce with a huge smile, hug, and a fist bump for Bruce.  (It’s a guy thing, I guess…)  The surprised look on his face was priceless when we gave him the photo card I had made from the picture I had shot last January.  He was so appreciative!

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It was time to get to work, though, and our group hustled filling 266 bags of dirt, and then passed them down the assembly line to receive cacao seeds.  In two months, they will look like the ones we planted in January.  It was great to see how our “babies” were doing!

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Bruce leads off the “bucket brigade”

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Our “babies” from january!

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Cacao pod and seeds.  The membrane surrounding the seeds is delicious!  Suck the membrane off the seed, but don’t bite, because the seed itself is very bitter!

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Cacao seeds drying in the sun

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Not only did Gumarcindo remember us, but Wilmers, Steven, and the bus driver, Milagras did, too.  Instead of going off with the group to tour the fermenting area (which we had seen during our last visit), I stayed back to talk with the guys.

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Diosiris, Wilmers, Steven, and Gumarcindo

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Gumarcindo and Raymond

When our time was up at the nursery, we headed over to the factory to sort beans and nibs, mold chocolate, and wrap chocolate bars.  Again, our enthusiastic greetings of “Hola!  Que lo que?” were met with big, wide-eyed smiles, and hugs.  It was nice to be remembered!  We also were so happy to see how much everybody appreciated the photo cards.  One of the ladies even went to get paper towels and carefully wrapped hers up, and then held onto it tight.  (She at least let us get another photo with her and the card first!)

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Bruce and I join Mamita

They had so much fun looking at each other’s cards and laughing at the pictures!  We may not have been able to communicate too much using words with each other; but, a smile is a smile in any language, and those ladies were all smiles!

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Augustina

After passing out the cards, my next order of business before getting down to work was to give the co-op’s president, Susan, the yellow 3M ear plugs.  As one of the other IDDI facilitators translated, I explained the importance of using ear plugs to save their hearing. I then demonstrated how to properly insert them and use the “pillow pouch” for storage afterward.  By keeping the ear plugs clean and storing them in the pouch, they would last a lot longer.

I promised Susan and Naomi (the V.P.), that if the factory workers used the ear plugs regularly, I would send more.  There is no mail service to Altamira, so I would send them to the IDDI office, and the facilitators would deliver them to Chocal.

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Bruce, Christopher, Naomi (VP), Susan “Luz” (President), and Rafael

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After distributing the cards and ear plugs, Bruce and I finally did manage to get some work done.  The best part, though, was getting to taste the spicy hot chocolate and warm molding chocolate again.  Ahhh, it was so good to be back!

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Milagros (factory manager) & Bruce

This time, when we said, “Adios!” to everybody at the end of our last day, we wondered if it would be forever.  Would we ever be back?  Never say never…

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My amigo, Steven

Next up:  HABLA INGLES?  TEACHING ENGLISH IN THE DR

CHOCAL: FROM BEAN TO BAR

In my previous post, I described the first steps in making chocolate, and mentioned how I talked my way into a factory tour for the following day.

Orlando made good on his promise to arrange a factory tour during our second day at Chocal.  After Bruce and I worked for awhile at separating cocoa beans, Orlando escorted us to the machines off the back patio where we met up with one of the ladies.  As she explained (in Spanish) the chocolate-making process and showed us the machines, Orlando translated as I attempted to record the information on my digital recorder.  As I sit here trying to listen to Orlando’s translation, the background noise of the loud machinery is making it very difficult to hear him!  Note to self:  Purchase ear plugs for the workers, because they aren’t using any, and they are going to lose their hearing!

Picking up where we left off previously, the next step in the chocolate-making process is for those cocoa nibs to be ground up in a grinding machine to liquefy the cocoa butter and produce what is now called chocolate liquor or chocolate liquid.

Next, the chocolate liquor goes through a second refining process to further reduce the particle size of the cocoa mass.  Cocoa nibs contain approximately 53 percent cocoa butter (depending on the cacao species); so, it is during this second refining process that the percentage is either increased or decreased, depending on the desired finished product.  For chocolate bars, cocoa butter needs to be added, so the chocolate liquor is transferred to another machine where it will be combined with additional cocoa butter and other ingredients.  This process is described below.  For cocoa powder, the cocoa butter content must be reduced.  At Chocal, they use a syringe to remove as much as possible.  Next, the chocolate liquor is pressed to remove more of the cocoa butter.  Baking soda is added to the remaining cocoa and the “press cake” is cooled, pulverized, and sifted to form cocoa powder.

“Press cake” is also used to form cocoa balls for hot cocoa drinks.  This is what the ladies are making in the photo later in this post (and in the photos in my last post).

To produce eating chocolate,  extra cocoa butter is added to the chocolate liquor in a mixing machine, along with sugar and other ingredients, depending on the type of chocolate being made at the time.  In all, cocoa butter accounts for about 25 percent of the weight of most chocolate bars.

For milk chocolate, milk powder is used at Chocal, whereas fresh milk is used at Cadbury.  (If you have seen a Cadbury Milk Chocolate label, you will notice the logo showing that a “glass-and-a-half” of milk goes into each block.

After the chocolate is mixed, it is transferred to another machine to refine it.  Next the chocolate goes into a conching machine.  Conching is a kneading process that develops the flavor of the chocolate, releases some of the bitterness, and gives the resulting chocolate a smooth texture.  In general, the longer chocolate is conched, the smoother the texture will be.  It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  Chocal conches their chocolate for just a few hours; however, the entire mixing process takes a full day between the three machines.

After the chocolate is conched, it must be tempered before it gets poured into chocolate bar molds.  Friction during the conching process naturally heats up the chocolate.  That liquid is then brought down to temperature using a marble table that remains cold due to the air conditioning in the room.  The women spread the chocolate on the table using metal spatulas, mix the chocolate around, and fold it inwards to cool the chocolate quickly.

Tempering is a stabilizing process that helps keep the chocolate crystals from clumping together, which would give the chocolate a grainy texture.  It also gives the chocolate a smooth, glossy appearance and prevents the cocoa butter from separating out.  If done correctly, the chocolate bar will shine on the outside and make a snapping sound when broken in half.

Once the chocolate is tempered, it is poured into molds.  The women at Chocal do this by hand and tap the molds to remove any remaining air bubbles.

Finally, the chocolate is cooled and then removed from the molds for packing.

It was fantastic getting to see how the entire chocolate-making process is done, from bean to bar.  The machines were so much smaller and different than the ones I had seen in the large, modern factories; so, at times, it was a bit confusing trying to figure out which machine was doing what.  Some of it got lost in translation, and much of it just got lost due to not being able to hear!  I’m still not exactly clear on which of these machines do which job, but I figured it out for the most part:

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I believe this is where the cacao beans are roasted.

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After the beans are roasted, they go through a winnower to separate the cocoa nibs from the shells.  I think that is the job of these machines.

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Once all shells are removed from the cocoa nibs, the nibs are gound in this machine.

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This is the pressing machine where the nibs are pressed to make chocolate liquor for chocolate bars.  The remaining “press cake” that is separated from the liquor is used to make cocoa balls for hot chocolate and cocoa powder for baking.  Here, a syringe is used to remove the cocoa butter from the press cake, so the remaining cocoa can be used for cocoa balls and cocoa powder.

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I’m not sure about the purpose of this machine, but it may have been to further process the “press cake” for powder.

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This worker was using the smaller machine to produce fine cocoa powder.

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In this machine, sugar, milk powder, and additional cocoa butter is added to the cocoa liquor and mixed.

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Here, the mixture from the first machine is further mixed and refined.

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This where the magic happens!  The refined mixture is placed in this conching machine to grind it to a homogeneous consistency.  The full mixing and conching process takes one day.

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This is the marble table where the chocolate is tempered.

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Finally, the chocolate is poured into molds for chocolate bars and cooled.

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Nidia, our tour guide

At the conclusion of the tour, we returned to our group to assist with packaging the chocolate.  After we finished, the others made their chocolate purchases while Bruce and I went to see what the ladies were up to on the patio.  This time, when we said, “Hasta manana!” they believed us and flashed us big smiles.  We would be returning the next day for one last time.

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Milagros, the factory manager

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When we arrived for our final day at Chocal, the woman in the photo above (with the green blouse) ran up to me and gave me a big hug!  Our tour guide, Nidia, did as well.  We were pleased they were happy to see us once again.

After we completed our work inside, Bruce and I joined the ladies while our group hit the gift shop.  Instead of making cocoa balls, the ladies were sorting beans, so I joined in.  My new friend opened up a fresh cacao pod and shared the beans with me.  Although the beans are very bitter, the pulp is sweet and delicious!  The idea is to suck on the beans, and then spit it out without biting into the bean itself.  Yum!

 

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These beans sell for $2/lb.

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While we were working, some local farmers stopped by to sell their beautiful vegetables.  Nidia ran back to call out to the others, and some of the ladies ran up to make a purchase.

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The time came to say “Adios!” and “No, no manana” to the women, give them hugs, and make our way to the bus for our final ride back down the mountain from Altamira.  As I gazed out the bus window during the bus ride, I knew I wanted to return.  Bruce did, too, and the wheels in our minds started turning…  (More details will follow in a future post.)

In my next post, I’ll show you around RePapel, a women’s co-op that recycles paper and makes beautiful stationary and jewelry for sale.

Meanwhile, here are additional photos shot at and around Chocal:

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A local farmer spread his cacao beans out in the sun to dry.

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CHOCAL: MAKING A DIFFERENCE AT THE CACAO NURSERY

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61As Adonia cruised into Amber Cove, Bruce and I admired the gorgeous tropical scenery of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic (aka “the DR”).  We were eager to start the day, so we were among the first to disembark after our arrival.  It was too early to board the bus for Chocal; so, we explored Amber Cove, the $90 million-dollar port completed a year ago by Carnival Cruise Lines.  I took several photos of the attractive complex; however, I am eager to write about Chocal.  Amber Cove will have to wait…

In my first post about Fathom Impact Travel, I mentioned we would be helping Chocal with their cacao and chocolate production.  It is a women’s cooperative currently employing thirty women (as well as some of their adult children); however, their goal is to grow the cooperative and thrive.  Helping them to succeed will enable Chocal to hire more local women, and bring more income into their community.

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During the bus ride to Chocal, Leurys, a representative of IDDI (Dominican Institute for Integral Development), prepared us for our upcoming morning at the cacao plantation and chocolate factory.  In addition to learning about Chocal’s creation in 2008 (detailed in the photo above), the entire chocolate-making process was explained, from cacao seedling to chocolate bar.  We would be contributing to many of those processes to help increase production.

I was curious how these women learned the business of producing chocolate.  We were told a consultant from Switzerland was hired to teach them the entire process, and educate them on the special equipment needed to process the cacao.  After the co-op obtained a loan from the U.S.A., the machines were built to specification and delivered to the factory.

Chocal is located high up in the mountains in the town of Altamira (Spanish for “high view”) where cacao grows naturally and abundantly, along with mango and other tropical fruits.  Many local farmers belong to a farming cooperative and make their living by harvesting their cacao and selling the cacao beans.

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Having Chocal in their community provides another buying source for their cacao beans.  When Chocal is in need of more cacao than their own trees produce, they buy from the farmers in their community.  In turn, when those farmers need additional cacao trees for their land, they can purchase young trees from Chocal at cost.  The farmers provide compost for the seedlings, and pay the equivalent of ten cents for each two-foot tall tree they purchase.  This covers the cost of the bag, and the (free) labor is provided by us volunteers.  IDDI representatives work with Fathom and Chocal to facilitate the volunteer process.

It was in the nursery where we ended each of our three volunteer days at Chocal; however, it is where I will begin our tour here, since this is the origin of chocolate.  It all begins with cacao.

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Once the teams were in place at the bag filling station, bag brigade, and seedling planting station; we rocked!  I never noted how much time we spent in production mode (perhaps one hour); but, whatever the time period, we produced.  Our bus load of +/- thirty volunteers filled bags and planted 504 seedlings our first day, and 584 the second day. Our group had less time to work on the third day; however, we still managed to complete 403 bags.  That’s teamwork!

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We met Jessica, age 9, and her dad, Len, during the first night aboard ship.  They were wonderful table mates, and became fast friends.  Erin and Erin were college friends who we met during the bus ride.

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Leurys explained how the bags should be filled to the top and compacted.  Next, a hole is inserted in the soil and a cacao seedling is planted.

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Carola (right), helps plant the seedlings.  She was our table mate on another night aboard ship.

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Gumarcindo lines up the seedlings on our first day.  Our group planted 504!

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By Day 3, Gumarcindo was trying to figure out where to put them all!

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These little cacao trees will be sold to area farmers at cost– about ten cents per tree.

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My new amigo, Gumarcindo.

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After our work was completed, Gumarcindo, the nursery manager, showed us how the beans are processed at the nursery, before they are taken next door to the factory.

First, the cacao pods are carefully removed from the trees, and then manually cut open within 7-10 days of harvest.  The beans and pulp are scooped out from the pod and placed into the top level of boxes in the fermenting room.  After two days at the top level, they are dumped down into the middle level for another two days of fermenting.  Finally, they are transferred into the bottom level where they ferment for an additional two days before being spread out in the sun to dry.

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Although many cacao growers skip the fermenting step before drying their beans, the Swiss consultant explained to the co-op members that fermented beans would make for better-tasting chocolate.

After the fermentation process is complete, the beans are left in the sun to dry to reduce the moisture content from about 60% to 7.5%.  If it looks like it’s going to rain, the roofs are pulled over the bean tables to keep the beans dry.

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The drying process is done carefully and slowly to ensure that off-flavors are not developed.  If the beans are dried too quickly, some of the chemical reactions started in the fermentation process are not allowed to complete their work.  This causes the beans to become acidic and taste bitter.  If the drying is done too slowly, however, mold can develop.

To ensure an even drying process, the beans are spread out in the sun and raked or turned periodically.  In all, the drying process takes about six days.

Once dried, the beans are packed in large sacks and stored in Chocal’s warehouse that is kept cool and dry.  Under these conditions, the cacao beans can be stored for years.

My next post will be about those cacao beans that are processed to become delicious chocolate!

Meanwhile, as our tour came to an end, we said “Hasta manana!” (See you tomorrow!”) to Gumarcindo and the IDDI facilitators helping out at the nursery.  All of them gave us a funny look, because nobody comes back tomorrow if they are on a Fathom cruise.  As a matter of fact, the Fathom website doesn’t allow for registering for multiple Impact activities at the same location.  Besides, most people opt for a variety of volunteer opportunities rather than just one.  Not me.  Between my passion for all things chocolate and my strong belief in the women’s co-op; I was determined to spend as much time as possible at Chocal. Bruce was fine with it, so I called Fathom’s headquarters as soon as we signed up for the cruise and pleaded my case.  Happily, the gal I spoke with empathized and did a manual override of their computer system to sign us up for to volunteer at Chocal all three full days in the DR.

When Bruce and I returned the following day, we found Gumarcindo and greeted him with, “Hola, Gumarcindo!  Que lo que?”  (“Hello, Gumarcindo!  What’s up?”)  (“Que lo Que” is a special DR greeting that is very much appreciated by the locals, so we enjoyed using that greeting often!)

A big grin and a fist bump greeted us back!

On the third day, I was sad to have to tell Gumarcindo, “No hasta manana.”  I didn’t know if or when we would ever be back…

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Next up:

CHOCAL:  MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK