Does Money Grow On Trees?

Rainforest Chocolate TourContrary to what your parents may have told you, money does grow on trees. Or, at least it did in Costa Rica from 1909 to 1929. That is when beans from the cacao tree – the source of chocolate – were so highly prized they became Costa Rican’s currency. Cacao grows well in Costa Rica’s tropical climate; San Jose – Costa Rica’s capital – was the third city in the world to get public electricity because its cacao was so valuable. Only Paris and New York plugged in ahead.

My thoughts on chocolate had been limited to the calorie count of dessert so when I saw the Rainforest Chocolate Tour sign in Costa Rica’s La Fortuna region, it seemed a pleasant way to research chocolates’ role in economic development.

We were introduced to Lolita, a rescued Mealy parrot acting as rainforest greeter, and Carlos Chavarria, the company founder. Carlos joked, “Fifty percent of the guides here are called Carlos and the other fifty percent are named Jose.” But there was nothing common about Carlos’s passion for chocolate. He led us into the forest, stopping to point at a short, stout tree with broad leaves – Theobroma cacao.

Chavarria explained how cacao trees are pruned short so people can easily reach the fruit, and that a tree has to be four years old before producing fruit. Carlos gathered mango-sized pods from below the tree and asked us to crack one open. It was harder than it looked. A few solid blows against a wooden bench eventually exposed milky-colored flesh cushioning a dozen beans (called seeds after processing). Our first job was to suck the fleshy fruit and reveal the beans.

The beans were then gathered to ferment and dry for several days in a goldilocks-style rack system – workers ensure not too much or too little sun reach the beans. Because we had only two hours, Chavarria spotted us some dried beans and we moved into a canvas-covered amphitheater where the chocolate magic occurred.

The seeds were cleaned, then roasted and ground into small shards of shell and cacao nibs. Winnowing separated the chaff from our prize – raw cacao that was then rolled into a paste. A smiling assistant stirred milk and sugar into the cacao over a low flame.

We were paid for our labor in making chocolate to make the tour more interactive (we didn’t do enough to merit genuine reimbursement). Our wages were the cacao beans that once formed Costa Rica’s currency and we could keep them as a souvenir or use them to buy more chocolate. As I debated whether Canadian customs agents would ever let these beans across the border, Chavarria said, “In the 19th century, your fifteen beans would have been enough to buy a turkey.” Sure livestock would not get into Canada, I decided to indulge in a chocolate spending spree.

Costa Rica no longer uses cacao beans for currency, but the crop is still important to the country. In 1960, 70% of the world’s cacao was produced in Central America, but exports plummeted after crops were decimated by fungus. By 1975, over 80% of the world’s cacao was coming from West Africa where labor costs were less. Now, Costa Rica is enjoying a cacao resurgence. With the discovery of health-producing flavonoids in chocolate, Costa Rica has focused on growing fine-flavor cacao for organic and specialty chocolate products. “The best cacao with flavonoids and tryptophan comes from Central America,” boasted Chavarria. I sighed with relief. I could leave knowing eating chocolate was making me healthier, if not wealthier!

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