Jun 9, 2014

From Bean to Bar in Santo Domingo

John and I have been to several chocolate museums but nothing
compared with our visit to the Chocolate Museum in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic and the first European city in the Americas. The Choco Museum is just steps from Plaza Colon in the heart of the colonial center of the city.  The tour started in a small garden of cocoa plants and then followed the production process. We learned that the cocoa plant is “finicky.” It needs between 60 and 80 inches of rain a year and the temperature should not go below 60 degrees.  The soil should be well-drained and the plant likes to be shaded and protected from the wind by canopy trees so it is only found in the tropics. 

The history of chocolate is fascinating. For 3500 years the people of Mesoamerica used cacao in everyday life and in their rituals as documented in stone, pottery and oral histories. In Maya times, drinking chocolate was one of the privileges of the royalty, nobles, shamans, and warriors. It is thought that the bean was used as ‘money’ so essentially money grew on

trees.  Initially, the Spanish did not like the taste of the chocolate which is very bitter without the addition of sugar. They introduced chocolate to Spain and the rest of Europe and popularized the chocolate drink and with the addition of sugar it became very popular but at first it was available only to the wealthy.   It was called “Food of the Gods.”

The best part of our visit was signing up for their chocolate workshop.  As advertised we participated in the chocolate making process from “bean to bar.” First we roasted the dried cocoa beans then removed the shells. Our guide, Tomas, explained that shucking the beans was considered time to relax and socialize.  Hot water was poured over the shells and allowed to seep for a few minutes. We added a little sugar to create a delicious cacao tea. They sell the shells so people can make their own cacao tea.

Then we ground the nibs and made three types of hot chocolate.
 There was the hot chocolate that we are used to with just milk and sugar whereas the Spanish version included cinnamon, anise, and cloves ground along with the cocoa beans.  My favorite was the Mayan version which included ground chili peppers but no sugar.  It was surprisingly good with a little kick.  While we were making our chocolate beverages the chocolate beans were turned into smooth, creamy chocolate. 

We made our very own bonbons.  First a dab of chocolate was dropped in the tray to which we added something special.  We had a choice of nuts, M&Ms, and dried fruit. Finally it was covered with more chocolate.  Our two-hour workshop was nearly over.  But, since our chocolate bonbons needed to harden, Tomas suggested we walk around the colonial center and return to pick them up. 

We decided to see “500 Years of History in 45 Minutes” so we hopped on the Chu Chu trolley tour. The train-like trolley was located next to the Parque Colon just a short walk from the museum. The tour took us past all the main attractions in Santo Domingo and, luckily, the tour was in English.  When our sightseeing tour finished we wandered back to the Choco Museum and picked up our chocolates.