Monday 18 Aug, 2014

Service Learning in Ecuador: A Farm-to-Table Chocolate Treat

Walk up to the check-out counter at any grocery or convenience store and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a variety of candy bars, often covered in chocolate. I’m lucky if I make it out without grabbing at least a Reese’s. But do you ever stop and think about where chocolate comes from, or how it’s even grown? I never really gave chocolate much thought until I learned that I would be visiting a cacao farm during a Service Learning Tour in Ecuador. What even is cacao?

“A cacao farm,” I thought to myself, “Doesn’t chocolate come from cocoa?” I mean Sonny always told me he was cuckoo for cocoa puffs, not cacao puffs. So I decided to investigate the difference between cacao and cocoa. Well here’s what I learned: depending on who you talk to, cacao is the raw and unprocessed natural bean, while cocoa is the opposite. Cocoa is the brown powder made from roasted cacao beans that gives certain foods their chocolate flavor. Some sources will even say cacao and cocoa mean the same thing and can be interchangeably used. You say tomato, I say tomahto. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to use cacao, I don’t care what Sonny has to say.

Tying together service learning and cultural immersion, EF Educational Tours introduces students to local artisans and farmers to better illustrate a country’s culture and economy. On day five of our tour we spent the morning helping locals build a new community pavilion. After completing that day’s service project, we took a short hike to a local cacao farm. I was expecting to see a large commercialized farm building, but to my surprise, we were led to a modest brown building with a small patio, and given a lesson in cacao farming. Instead of just receiving a simple demonstration, the lesson turned into a candid discussion with a local cacao farmer, named Fabian.
EF Tours Ecuador Service Learning
We learned that Fabian has been farming this land for most of his adult life, that he owns close to 28 acres of cacao trees and that he’s part of an international farmers’ co-op. Because of the fragility of each pod, Fabian and his 12 employees follow traditional harvesting methods and use a machete to cut down each cacao pod by hand.

Fabian farms four to five varieties of cacao, and each type has a different colored pod. As we walked through his farm we came across green, yellow, mauve and bright orange pods. Along with color, each variety has a different flavor. Holding a pod in my hand, I found the cacao beans were covered in a white, slippery, slimy fruit. Yes, I said fruit (see chocolate is good for you). You can actually pull out the beans and suck on or chew the white fruit. Each with its own unique taste, some tasting a little more sour than others. I’ll admit the first touch and taste of the beans felt a little weird, but part of the whole experience was trying something new, right?

Using the fruit to make chocolate is not an easy, one-step process. The beans must first be removed from the pod, and then dried and fermented, which can take up to five days. Eager to make our own chocolate, we bought fermented cacao beans and gathered everything that we would need to make a yummy treat!

First, we roasted the beans for five minutes, allowing us to easily pull the shell from the bean. Then we grounded the beans, mixing them with a heaping spoonful of sugar. Before sampling, we ran the cocoa powder through the grinder one more time. Voilà, we had made chocolate! To complete our farm-to-table treat we divvied up the ground chocolate, added a banana, and dipped away. Our ground chocolate was 95% cacao. For anyone who’s ever tasted an 80% dark chocolate bar you know it’s a little bitter. Surprisingly, the dark chocolate we ground was not bitter at all. It was AMAZINGLY perfect! Not too sweet, not too bitter, but just right.

After this experience I can honestly say I’ll never again look at chocolate candies at the check-out counter the same way.

Marie is a Regional Manager at EF Educational Tours. Over the last 6 years she has built lasting relationships with teachers in Northern Colorado while helping them plan and organize student travel. Like many of her colleagues, Marie has a passion for travel and has visited 19 countries and 6 continents.

On a Service Learning Tour, you and your students work side-by-side with locals on community-driven projects in Africa, Asia or the Americas. EF Partners with established non-profits and NGOs—such as the Mariposa Foundation and Free The Children—to make sure your contributions are both meaningful and sustainable. Through hands-on work and deep exposure to the local culture, students learn vital collaboration and problem solving skills. They return inspired to make a difference at home, too.