Football. That was the first thing that came to mind as we approached a grove of trees bearing large football-shaped fruits displayed like vivid ornaments on their brown trunks. About the size and color of a lime-green nerf football, I wanted nothing more than to pull one off and send it spinning through the air. It’s not that I actually know how to throw a football, or am even inclined to play sports — quite the contrary. It’s just that throwing fruit seems to be a logical conclusion on Isla Palenque, where shortly after shaking someone’s hand, a commonplace question to be asked is, “have the monkeys nailed ya’ yet?” Yes, the howlers find it quite entertaining to take one bite from a juicy mango before sending it hurling at the top of your head. Their aim is infuriatingly excellent.
What the fruit came to be was so much better than a food fight with howler monkeys or a Sunday of island “football.” Instead it was something much more fitting for my lack of arm strength and propensity for being a girly girl: chocolate.
“What is this?” I asked Ensor, an Isla Palenque team member who was nice enough to be our island guide for the day.
He smiled big, “Oh you’ll love this one — cacao.”
Laura and I squealed, picturing the sweet milk chocolate that would flow out all Willy Wonka-like upon cracking the fruit open. We wandered among the trees looking for a ripe fruit (the yellow-orange ones), as Ensor explained that the fruit isn’t exactly a chocolate Easter egg. He cracked a ripe fruit swiftly against the tree, splitting it nicely, and handed us each half. Framed by the bright orange core was a mass of seeds covered in white slime.
“Eat it!” He prompted, “but not the seed.”
Hesitantly I popped a slimy seed into my mouth, having lost all expectations of fulfilling my chocolate craving. A rush of sweet and sour sensations took over my tongue. I’m sure Laura’s face mimicked mine: surprised eyes and smile — it was good! Really good. Following many “mmm’s” and taste tests, we finally decided that the fruit tastes like lemon sugar, or a lemon Smarties candy. After our happenstance lunch of mangoes, papaya and limes — all plucked straight from the trees, this was the sweet dessert we had been hoping for after all.
In my hand I held one of the greatest natural sources of caffeine*, moisturizer and post-breakup solace — what more could a girl want? All thoughts of football had definitely vanished as we sucked the sweetness off of every last seed in the afternoon sun. But wait — how do you make chocolate from lemon sugar flavored slime? Don’t worry, we learned that the island way. In order for the seeds, which we bit open to find are a dark eggplant color, to become the dark and bitter cocoa power we know and love, they must first be fermented.
Traditionally, the seeds and pulp are removed from the fruit and are buried underground for 2-7 days to allow for the seeds to ferment. The fermented seeds, which have gone from deep purple to red, are then laid in the sun to dry. It is during this process that the seeds turn the deep dark brown of chocolate and start to smell like it as well.
After drying, the confectionery creation can begin. A quick Google search revealed that modern chocolate production still follows this simple Isla Palenque recipe, just substituting airtight containers and ovens where rich jungle soil and warm Panamanian sun are not available. Sometimes the seeds are roasted or polished, depending on the taste the chocolatier is going for. Then the beans are crushed into a fine powder and the desired amount of milk and sugar are added, and voila! Chocolate.
We’ve got everything we need to make authentic island chocolate right here on Isla Palenque — and don’t think Laura and I didn’t consider it. We were on quite a sugar high from all the island fruits we ate throughout the day. Instead, we grabbed another ripe cacao fruit and tried to mimic Ensor’s swift crack against the tree. After several failed, two-handed attempts, we let Ensor crack them open so we could bask in the sugar and sun on another perfect island day. Maybe I’ll work on that arm strength after all.
The scientific name for the cacao plant, Theobroma, means “food of the gods” or “alimento de los dioses” in Spanish — not a bad name for our own, island-made brand of chocolate. What do you think?
*Cacao seeds naturally contain theobromine, a compound similar to caffiene.