Urban Harvest: Cocoa in Accra

IMG_0096

A few weeks ago, I learned that there is a cocoa tree at Guinness Ghana here in Accra, where my partner works. While I am living in Ghana, I am making the most of new research opportunities, and here was an unexpected one: What would it be like to harvest and process my own cocoa? Here is the story so far …

IMG_0102The tree sits right next to the parking lot—note the truck packed with orange crates of Guinness in the background! It’s in front of the staff clinic, and I asked the clinic manager, Anne, if anyone tended it or harvested the fruit. She said no. As you can see, it’s quite feral and has no shade trees for company.

IMG_0189Still, it was bearing fruit, with more to come—see the bunches of white flowers, some of which will mature into cocoa pods.

IMG_0130The first step was to harvest the pods. For those that grow high up on the trees, farmers use a pole with a blade or hook on the end. There happened to be a pole nearby, so I used that. But it was made of plastic and had no hook, so I  had to ram the end of the pole into a pod stem over and over until it fell off and rolled across the brick patio.

Version 2Using the bendy pole wasn’t the easiest harvest method, so I began plucking pods from trunk, where I could reach them. My driver, Stanley, grew up in a cocoa farming area, and helped me with the harvest.

IMG_0139After ten or fifteen minutes, my shopping basket was full of cocoa pods.

IMG_0148Typically, farmers in Ghana leave harvested pods in a pile until family and neighbors can help crack them open and scoop out the seeds, often on a Saturday. I piled my pods on a chair on the balcony at home and planned to break them open on the weekend, when my partner could help. I was full of enthusiasm to begin and had high hopes for the final product already. I imagined that, once fermented and dried, the beans would be plump and flavorful, maybe with a hint of Guinness from the brewery. On an Instagram post, I ambitiously asked for brand name suggestions. Thoughtful friends and family gave creative responses, including “chocodocolate” (natalievanwykartist), “from beer to bean” (avcrofts), and “doc chocolate” (profseanoconnor).

IMG_0156

When we sat down to begin, I had my first revelation: though I have observed every step of cocoa harvest and processing, some of them many times, I didn’t actually know that process. Other languages, including French and Spanish, have different versions of the verb “to know” that distinguish between knowing a person, knowing information, or knowing how to do something. The best we can do in English is to talk about “knowing that” versus “knowing how.”

For example, I know that after harvesting cocoa pods, which are thick and sturdy, farmers often use a machete to break them open. We didn’t have a machete, so I got out a kitchen cleaver, the big one that we use for slicing butternut squash. As I sat there with a pod in one hand and the cleaver in the other, I immediately understood that I did not know the how. It seemed similar to whacking a knife into an avocado stone to extract it. But the cocoa pod was larger, and I had to use a more fearsome knife with more force. It was terrifying to imagine bringing the blade smashing down on the pod. What if I missed? I could easily slice off part of my hand or make a deep cut.

It was too scary to do, so I placed the pod on the balcony and chopped at it with the cleaver. It sometimes took a few tries to make a cut that was deep enough. I then dug my fingers into the cut and wrested the pod apart. It was not an efficient method, and certainly I was not nearly fast enough to operate on a commercial scale. Farmers have to learn how to break open many pods quickly, even if the methods are scary or dangerous.

IMG_0174My partner and I took turns breaking pods and scooping out seeds. Some of them looked like they had worms crawling out of them, but after a moment I realized that those seeds had germinated. Of course, I knew that cocoa seeds might germinate, but I had no idea if or how that would impact the rest of the process. Would germinated seeds ferment? If they did, would they be usable for making chocolate? Wondering about these questions also made me realize that I had harvested the pods without any thought of whether they were ripe—or over-ripe. I could tell you that pods often change color as they ripen, from green to yellow or orange, but some stay green. I did not know how to tell if the ones on the Guinness tree were ready for harvest.

IMG_0175

I decided that the safest thing would be to separate the evidently germinated seeds into their own pile. I organized the seeds on a bed of plantain leaves, as I have seen farmers do, and covered them with another layer of waxy fronds. This is called the heap method of fermentation and is common here in Ghana.

IMG_0185

I wasn’t sure how messy the process would be, so I laid the whole thing on top of a plastic bag to protect the balcony from being stained. I added a couple of dead potted plants as weights, so that the pile would not blow open in the sometimes-strong breezes.

IMG_0199Then I had to travel to the UK for a week. I asked my partner to make us a drying table while I was away, and there was a beautiful one waiting for me when I returned. It was too late at night to transfer my beans, so I put an almond on it to judge the scale and prepared to go out in the morning and start the drying process.

IMG_0201My fermentation heap didn’t look at all as I expected. The plantain leaves had dried and shriveled, and I could see some filthy-looking beans spilling out from one side. When we first got the plantain leaves, I had left them on the balcony overnight. When we went out the next day to crack open the pods, I lifted a frond and a giant cockroach scuttled out. I imagined that the environment of the heap had only become more resource-rich for roaches, and prepared myself for dozens to run out when I lifted up the leaves.

IMG_0203Well, let me tell you, those beans were so disgusting that not even the cockroaches wanted them! They had gotten terribly molded, and they certainly did not look like any fermented beans I’d seen before. I couldn’t bear to touch them, so I put on food prep gloves to transfer handfuls to the drying mat, trying not to breathe in the mold.

IMG_0206I had been posting pictures of the process on Instagram. When I put up these images, I received an email almost immediately from my friend Steve DeVries, who is a craft chocolate maker and expert in the bean to bar process. He sounded horrified, and sent me references for a half dozen books on cocoa fermentation. Steve wasn’t the only one to be put off. I sat in my living room and watched morosely as a crow alighted on the balcony railing, glanced at the beans, and flew away. No one was interested in my cocoa.

IMG_0208I still had a shred of optimism that the beans could be saved, though, so I moved the drying mat into the sunshine. They stayed there for more than a week, and I can’t say they improved. I went out one day to stare at them during a writing break, and realized that, while working on a report on Liberia’s cocoa market, I had addressed the challenge of beans going moldy during the rainy season (which is now), if evacuation trucks get stalled on the road. Compared to someone who farms cocoa for a living, I’d done an infinitesimal amount of labor, and I still felt sorrow and frustration at seeing my cocoa spoiled and unusable. How had I typed so dispassionately that beans going moldy was “especially a problem during the rainy season”? What did I know of beans going moldy, until it happened to my harvest? It was repulsive, viscerally so, to see a food I had tended be taken over by another organism.

IMG_E0214I had had a similar realization once before: that as much as I might know about cocoa processing, I lack how knowledge. When I was in Seattle teaching at UW last year, I stopped on my way home from campus one evening at the Chocolate Man shop to take one of Bill Fredericks’s tempering classes. For the first hour, I listened as Bill explained and demonstrated the different tempering methods. I understood everything he was saying; I’d written about the process myself in Cocoa.

But as soon as Bill handed me a bowl and spatula, I realized that I had neither intuition nor a mental map of what was supposed to happen next. I mean, the only thing I had to do was stir the melted chocolate. But of course it is more than that: it’s just knowing that you are doing it right, that the crystallization is happening and the cocoa butter molecules are lining up in their strongest form. As basic as the task was—stirring—I did not know how. I gave it a few half-attempts, and then turned myself to the unnecessary task of cleaning dried chocolate off of equipment and working surfaces for the rest of the evening.

I haven’t returned to hand tempering since, but with this home cocoa processing, I will try again. After all these years researching and writing about cocoa and chocolate, there is so much that I just do not know, and cannot know until I experience it myself—and much of that, I will likely never experience. Having just published a book about the politics of cocoa, from farm to factory to taste, it was stunning to realize that. I have put my whole heart into understanding cocoa through research and writing, but I will do my best now to try out other ways. My next opportunity will be light crop, which happens here in July and August. I will return to the Guinness Ghana cocoa tree then, and see what more I can learn.

Advertisements

Sharing Gola Rainforest Chocolate: Part II

IMG_3430
Chocolate tasting with the Gola Rainforest cocoa team; photo by Katie Sims. All photos below by Felicity Butler, second from left in back row.

When I took the role of cocoa marketer for Twin & Twin Trading, and began working with the Gola Rainforest cocoa producer organizations and others in Africa, I decided that I would host chocolate tastings for my colleagues. Having traded specialty coffee for the better part of three decades, Twin has an in-house coffee lab, where the quality control manager analyzes samples and hosts weekly cuppings for the coffee marketers and traders. Several of the staff are certified Q Graders, a program that has done a great deal to standardize coffee assessment methods and vocabulary to describe quality. But with no Q Grader equivalent for cocoa, and with Twin increasing the variety of cocoa origins it was trading, I thought that the time was right for dedicated chocolate trainings.

I developed a series of courses—Chocolate 101, 201, and 301—and held them at the London office last summer. We explored the bean to bar process, as well as chocolate types, the meaning of cocoa percentages, various origins, and even roast profiles. And, of course, we tasted bars to illustrate all of those.

It was just as important for the producers organizations I was working with in Africa to do chocolate tastings, so I began to think about how to make those happen. As I have discussed in my book, Cocoa, farmers and buyers—the most “upstream” people in the cocoa-chocolate supply chain—typically have little opportunity to engage with chocolate. Many growers I have spoken with over the years have described for me the metrics for assessing cocoa quality, including fermentation level, bean size and weight, insect damage, mold level, and so forth. But very, very few discuss flavor. If the members and staff of cocoa producer organizations could experience dedicated chocolate tastings, I felt they would better understand the flavor priorities of potential buyers. With that understanding, they would be in a stronger position to negotiate sales.

When we were doing the chocolate courses in London, one of the Twin staff members, Katie Sims, was preparing to spend a month in Sierra Leone, to assist with the Gola season review and to prepare for the prospective buyer visit from Greg at Dandelion and Gino at Meridian (Katie is now the Gola Rainforest cocoa project manager, based in Kenema). When Katie set off, I equipped her with a selection of craft chocolate bars (thanks to the range on offer at Cocoa Runners in London) and a flavor wheel or two. Katie led a tasting to introduce the Gola cocoa team to connoisseur methods and vocabulary, and to prepare them for conversations with Greg and Gino. When they arrived, Greg led another tasting. This was, of course, before the sale happened, so the Gola Rainforest bar did not yet exist; instead, the team tasted other Dandelion bars.

When I went back to Sierra Leone last month, for the end-of-season review and to share Dandelion’s now newly made Gola Rainforest chocolate bar, some of the team members had thus experienced two tastings. But in my opinion, there is always room for more chocolate.

IMG_3439
Preparing for chocolate tasting with the Gola and Jula teams in Kenema

After our season review at Lalehun research center in the Gola Rainforest National Park, we returned to the town of Kenema and the Gola head office. There, the agricultural extension officers and cocoa buyers sat down with me for our chocolate tasting. The buyers and team leaders had, for the most part, participated in both Katie’s and Greg’s tasting sessions. Most of the agricultural extension officers had not, and nor had one of the farmer organization executives, who joined us.

Tasting chocolate is not the same as eating it. When I was growing up, I ate as much chocolate as I could, as fast as I could so that I could eat more. Tasting chocolate involves, among other things, slowing down the experience. When we slow down, we can taste flavor and experience texture more keenly.

IMG_3451
Tasting chocolate involves letting it melt in your mouth. I’m emphasizing, “Don’t chew!”

I began by outlining the methodology that I like to use for chocolate tastings, which involves all the senses. We discussed looking at the chocolate, to observe the features of its molding (for example, patterns of pods or leaves, or a company name) and to inspect it for bloom or the shininess that indicates good temper. We smelled the chocolate to see if any particular scents came through, and rubbed it with our fingers to experience the moisturizing sensation of the cocoa butter. We snapped pieces in half next to our ears to listen to its temper. And then, of course we tasted.

IMG_3488
Basic flavor wheel, with major categories often used to classify chocolate

One of the goals was to see what flavor notes we would identify in each bar. To make sure we were all using similar flavor categories, I drew a basic flavor wheel. After I wrote “chocolatey” as a base flavor word, I began to fill in quadrants of the wheel with other typical flavor categories. I wrote “earthy,” “fruity,” “nutty,” and then paused, momentarily blanking on the next category. Immediately, several of the cocoa buying offers chimed together, “Floral, it’s floral!” When I remarked that they had commanded connoisseur methods already, one buying officer said, smiling, “Greg taught us well.”

IMG_3459
Prepared for tasting with palate-cleansing water and notebooks; note the Chocolopolis flavor wheel on Janneh’s laptop screen!

In addition to the Dandelion Gola bar (which of course we tasted again), we tasted other dark bars and a few milks and inclusions. My colleague from Twin, Felicity Butler, had brought bars from the UK, and I had brought several from Ghana, so we had an unusually large number of chocolates to taste—ten or eleven in all. After tasting each one, we discussed the flavor experience. We had a remarkable degree of consistency, with most everyone agreeing if a bar was, for example, nutty or floral. We also tasted several inclusion bars, including the Golden Tree Akuafo bar from Ghana, which is lemon-flavored. I have served the Akuafo bar at many tastings over the years and, as usual, there was the ardent love-it/hate-it split.

IMG_E3475
Listening for the well tempered snap
IMG_3478
Looking at, tasting, and listening to chocolate

By the time we finished, it was well past lunch time. As we gathered up our things, we chatted about the chocolates and named our favorites. The winning comment came from Fodie Brima, the producer organization executive who had joined the tasting. For my whole life, I have felt that there could never be too much chocolate. But when I asked Fodie which type of chocolate he preferred, milk, dark, or inclusion, he replied, “I am tired.” Tired! After tasting so much chocolate, he explained, he had no room left to eat rice.

IMG_3490
With Fodie Brima, GACFA chairman, who was tired of tasting chocolate