Madeline Weeks is a PhD student at UC Davis studying the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of fine flavor cacao and chocolate. Before starting her PhD studies, she spent two months living in Belize and Guatemala interviewing cacao farmers who sell to Maya Mountain Cacao and Cacao Verapaz. Her time volunteering with these two organizations has given her a deeper appreciation for the unique flavors of each country. Below, she tells us about her recent research into the word “terroir.” At Dandelion, we use “terroir” in the same way that the wine industry does, to refer to way the environment around a tree impacts the beans. We don’t generally consider genetics or post-harvest process a part of terroir, but vocabulary is a hot button issue in an industry as new as craft chocolate, and things are always changing. Here, Madeline makes the case that “terroir” in the cacao world could encompass more than it traditionally has.
Many people think of chocolate as one flavor, just “chocolate.” I did too, until I tasted single origin chocolate for the first time.
After tasting chocolate from different origins, I began to wonder: “Why does chocolate from Belize taste drastically different than chocolate from Guatemala, and how can cocoa beans from the same region taste so different from each other, year to year?” I’d been tasting a lot of chocolate at the Dandelion Chocolate factory, and I like it so much that I started coming in on Saturdays to help the production team sort beans in the bean room. This summer, I travelled down to those same countries to learn more about cacao cultivation and post-harvest processes. In the wine, cheese, and chocolate industry, we talk about “terroir” as the way land and weather influence the taste of something. What I discovered in Belize is that on top of these elements surrounding flavor, there is a web of social and cultural dimensions that may contribute to its nuances. To think about flavor this way is to expand the definition of “terroir” beyond soil, and after my time in Belize, I think it’s a new definition worth considering.
In Belize, my first taste of cacao was the “baba” at the Cacao House, where Maya Mountain Cacao Ltd. (MMC) ferments and dries the cacao. Baba is a thin layer of sticky white pulp that covers the raw beans and aids in flavor development during fermentation. It is incredibly tangy and sweet, like a fusion of flavors from tropical fruits like mango, cherimoya, and lychee. Eating that baba made me feel happy, and so did tasting Belizean cacao in its native environment. I was standing on the soil on which the cacao trees had been grown, I could smell the slightly sweet and slightly sour smell of fermentation, and see the beautiful piles of cacao being dried under the sun.
Then I bit into the pulp-covered bean. Beneath the sweetness was an astringency that made me wrinkle my face. The beans did not have the characteristic deep “chocolate” notes that one might expect. I later learned this is because their flavor still needed to develop, and that happens during the post-harvest phases of fermentation, drying, and roasting. Curious to taste how the flavor first begins to develop on the farm, I spent the next couple weeks interviewing and living with ten cacao families that sell to MMC.
It was customary to begin each homestay by sharing a meal with the family. Quite literally, we would eat farm-to-table. A typical meal might consist of jippii-jappa (heart of palm) and wild herbs sautéed with chili pepper flakes, black beans slow-cooked over a wooden stove, and piping hot tortillas made from corn that was freshly ground over stone. All of these foods had been harvested from the farm and transformed into sustenance through a process bordering on alchemy.
Like a chef in the kitchen, each farmer has a different style for cultivating the fruits of his or her labor. Their harvest instruments? Simple to the untrained eye – a machete and a burlap sack. Yet the sharpness of the machete only counts for so much without true knowledge of the craft. One of my homestay hosts, Victor Cho, explained to me that finding the right machete for a person was like matching the right wand to a wizard. The size, weight, and curve must be right for the one who swings it. When we talked, he was still waiting until his adopted son was old enough to teach him how to use the machete on the cacao farm. He also taught me that proper harvesting requires full incorporation of the senses: look, touch, smell, and sometimes even taste to ensure that the pods are ripe. He showed me that unripe pods are like plastic fruits that don’t deliver the full spectrum of flavor, and it reminded me of how my mother had also taught me to smell the ripeness of fruit by incorporating my senses, walking me through the farmers’ market and asking questions about where the food comes from. The passing of knowledge from one generation to the next primes the future generation with a natural sense of quality.
Either on the farm or back at the house, the harvested pods are cracked open to remove the wet beans covered in baba. These beans are stored in buckets covered with banana leaves to sell to MMC or saved for home consumption. One experience I will never forget is tasting the freshly cut baba with Daniel Coc’s children. Daniel is one of the buyers for MMC and recently started growing cacao alongside the corn on his farm. After three years of waiting, his family had proudly harvested their first pod and were ready to crack it open. As we tasted this cacao together, I was filled with appreciation that they had invited me to share this special moment. Learning to taste began with learning to savor.
During another homestay, I was treated to a highly traditional way of consuming cacao. Some households keep a portion of their harvest for home consumption by storing these beans in buckets for a few days before rinsing off the baba and leaving the beans to dry on a sun patio. The cacao used for home consumption is often “washed,” as is traditional here, rather than being fully fermented and prepared for export. Francisco Cho had just prepared a spicy cacao drink made with black pepper and invited me to join in savoring a cup with his family. This delicious drink was my first time tasting cacao in traditionally prepared form in Belize and I felt honored to take part in its deeper symbolic meaning. Cacao has been integral to Maya traditions in Central America for thousands of years and to this day is still an energetic drink that invigorates the spirit and brings community together. For me, it was a gesture of welcome on this unfamiliar soil.
The beans that are sold to MMC go through a different postharvest process than that used for home consumption. Each week the buying team visits the households of hundreds of farming families, one by one, to purchase pounds of freshly harvested, wet cacao. The proceeding postharvest steps bring us back to the Cacao House, where the wet beans are fermented, dried, sorted, and eventually shipped in large containers to chocolate makers like Dandelion. It takes more than a full day of work and three people to make their purchasing rounds, in part because of the distance between communities, and in part because of the poor condition of some roads. These visits are also an important time to build relationships. I was impressed by how Daniel Coc would patiently sit down with each of the families to check in about everything, from squirrels on the farm to the health of the family. Since the buying team is usually the first-point of contact to the farmers, their ability to relate to the communities is a key ingredient in keeping everyone committed to quality.
After spending this time getting to know the families in their home environments, I thought back to my original question: What was it that gives chocolate from Belize its unique flavor? Within the Geography Group at UC Davis, we’ve been looking at this from the perspective of terroir and are working on a forthcoming paper. In the chocolate world, “terroir” can mean a number of things depending on who uses it, from biophysical traits like cacao variety or genetics, and harvest year to cultural dimensions like fermentation and cultivation practices. I personally am finding that there is no single definition, similar to what Kristy Leissle had uncovered about the word “artisan.” In trying to get to the root of terroir, as a means of understanding what makes chocolate taste the way it does, I’ve reflected on what terroir means to me personally.
I see terroir as a web of interconnectedness. Within this web are communities of people, plants, and organisms. Terroir begins in the soil, where a healthy microbiome is essential for nourishing the roots that grow into the food we eat and contributing to the flavor in beans we turn to into chocolate. But terroir is more than just flavor, it is also about the people’s connection to the land and to each other. Terroir tells a story about people and place. As my research journey progresses, my understanding of its complexity will continue to evolve. What I can say, is that the unique flavor of cacao from Belize is a product of terroir in all its dimensions—and that cacao has a miraculous way of bringing people together.
Acknowledgements: This journey would not have been possible without support from many people. I am grateful for the initial planning conversations with Cynthia, Greg, and Molly from Dandelion, Maya and Emily from Uncommon Cacao, and for the in-country field support from the Maya Mountain Cacao Team: Minni, Deon, Daniel, and the ten cacao families from whom I learned tremendously about the taste of cacao in Belize.
You can follow Madeline’s PhD journey and exploration of flavor on Twitter and Instagram: @madelinecacao.