by Esme McAvoy
It was in Colombia that I discovered just how good hot chocolate could be.
Colombians prefer to drink their home-grown cacao rather than eat it and a ‘choco-lah-tay’ means a cup of deliciously thick hot chocolate rather than a bar of Cadbury's.
To make it properly, traditionalists use an aluminium jug called a chocolatera which they fill with water and heat on the stove or over a wood fire. Solid bars of 100% ground cacao are found in the smallest of village shops, considered as basic a staple as coffee or rice. Some of the best-loved chocolate brands, such as Luker or Chocolate Cruz, have been around for close to a century. Squares of the chocolate are broken off and added to the warming water – usually a square per person and one for the pot – with a generous hunk of panela, Colombia’s traditional unrefined brown sugar, and a stick of cinnamon.
As the chocolate melts and panela sugar starts to dissolve, a second specialist chocolate-making utensil is required – a molinillo. A wooden or plastic stick with a ribbed ball at one end, the molinillo goes into the chocolate-water mixture and the stick handle is rolled quickly between the hands to blend the chocolate. When it’s steaming hot with a decent froth, it’s ready to serve. A cacao rich – and vegan-friendly – hot chocolate.
The world’s cacao beans are divided into two main groups – ‘bulk beans’ that make up around 90% of the world’s production and the higher quality ‘flavour beans’ which have a more complex, fruity flavour. Colombia is one of just a handful of countries that cultivates the precious flavour beans and the only one to actually consume the beans it grows. The majority of the world’s cacao comes from Africa where it is exported as a raw product and processed abroad meaning locals rarely get to enjoy the finished product.
As a hardened chocoholic, addicted to bars containing the highest cacao percentage I can find and not averse to eating pure cocoa powder by the dry spoonful, I was pleased to find our kitchen in Minca was furnished with the all-important chocolatera and molinillo duo. Even better was the discovery that our next-door neighbour Oscar had his very own orchard of cacao trees.
Chocolate growing on trees sounds like something straight out of a children’s storybook but in Minca ‘chocolate trees’ – or cacao trees to be precise - are a common sight, their ripe cacao pods hanging golden and heavy from their low-hanging branches. It was here that I cut open my first cacao pod and found out that the precious beans come wrapped in a delicious white goopy fruit that tastes both sugar-sweet and citrus-y tart.
The beans are usually left in their white pulp to dry in the sun, the sweetness of the pulp helping them ferment a little. Once dried, they are ready for toasting and the chocolate-making process begins.
While producing a commercial chocolate bar of the Dairy Milk variety is a complex science involving high-tech methods to heat and blend refined cocoa and sugar with vegetable fats and the rest, making chocolate for Colombian-style drinking chocolate is a far simpler, artisanal process.
Carmelina, our neighbour on the other side of us, buys Oscar’s raw dried cacao beans by the hessian sackful, toasting them and turning them into rustic discs of cacao for making hot chocolate. I quickly become an addict. Each disc is supposedly sufficient to make five litres of hot chocolate but I start stirring hunks of the more-ish cacao into my morning porridge or melting it in a pan with panela to dollop over cooked baby bananas from the garden. Or simply breaking off a chunk or two to eat as is.
As Carmelina’s number one, bestest customer, I’m invited one afternoon to help her make a new batch of chocolate. I head over to find her in the kitchen already at work slowly stirring a big saucepan of cacao beans over a wood fire.
Born in the department of Santander, where more than half of Colombia’s cacao is produced, Carmelina is a dab hand at chocolate making. In her home town and in nearby Bogotá, locals enjoy ‘Chocolate Santafereño’, or Chocolate Santander-style - a big mug of hot chocolate served with white crumbly ‘campesino’ cheese. The cheese is dropped into the hot chocolate until it melts and turns the chocolate just a little bit salty. My vegan version swaps the cheese for a Colombian arepa - a hot toasted maize flour pancake for dunking, (though a wedge of manna carrot cake would work a treat too).
The beans release a little steam and suddenly Carmelina whisks the heavy-bottomed pan off the fire, carrying it into her open-air living room where she empties the scorching hot beans onto a hessian sack on the floor to cool.
After a few minutes, her children pile in and we begin rubbing the beans between our fingers to remove their shells. The shelled beans have a rich, chocolate-brown sheen and I try not to eat them all before they reach the grinder. A few minutes in and the family parrot starts flapping about, squawking unmistakably in Spanish, “I want cacao! I want cacao!” Unbelievably, it turns out the parrot is as addicted as I am. Carmelina rolls her eyes as the children start feeding the desperate parrot with whole toasted cacao beans.
Sticks of cinnamon and a handful of cloves are added to the beans before they’re put through an old-fashioned hand crank grinder typically used for grinding coffee beans. As the crank turns, the beans are converted into a glistening viscous pool of liquid chocolate - a real-life Willy Wonka river.
Carmelina daubs the liquid chocolate into rounds on a large plastic sheet on the floor of her bedroom. “The next day we wake up to the whole house smelling of chocolate!” she says. The chocolate blobs done, the finished basin gets a sprinkling of sugar and everyone dives in with spoons to lick the still-warm chocolate bowl clean.
By the following morning, the discs are ready. I buy up a few and that afternoon as the sun sinks behind the mountains, I put some water in the chocolatera to warm. Soon we’re enjoying the fruits of our cacao-grinding labour: a comforting mug of ‘choco-lah-tay’, Colombian style.
Want to try some Colombian chocolate in London? Stop by the Notting Hill chocolate shop, Melt, and sample some ‘Chocolate Santander’, the only single origin chocolate produced in Colombia.