Apart from coffee, the other thing apart that Matagalpa grows in the luscious hills around town is cocoa, and where there's cocoa, there's chocolate. To be honest, Nicaragua isn't particularly famous for its chocolate, and while the locals do eat and drink it, it's pretty grim stuff for those of us who are more used to organic chocolate with lots of cocoa content. Local Nicaraguan chocolate is more about sugar than cocoa, and it's pretty disappointing.
There is one place in Matagalpa that bucks this trend, though: El Castillo del Cacao. This small, Dutch-owned factory makes just 700 bars every two days, all by hand, and it prides itself in using 100% organic ingredients and in producing what we would consider proper chocolate. It also does tours; how could we resist?
The tours at the factory itself are only in Spanish, so we booked a morning tour through Matagalpa Tours, the same people who ran our coffee tour, so it was no surprise to find that our hosts were yet again José and Juan Ramon. José brought the same caffeinated enthusiasm to chocolate that he'd brought to coffee the day before, and in a couple of hours at El Castillo we learned all about how to make chocolate from the raw ingredients. Here's how it works.
From Bean to Bar
Like coffee, chocolate starts off as a raw bean, this time the cocoa bean. Cocoa beans grow in large pods that tend to bud off the trunk of the cocoa tree, and when they're ripe, the pods are harvested and cracked open to reveal lots of cocoa beans, all surrounded by a pulp. The beans are left to ferment in a long, wooden trough, which dries out the pulp, but unlike coffee beans they aren't washed, but are instead laid straight out to dry in the sun.
Once dried, the beans are ready to head to the chocolate factory, where they are roasted for two hours at 150°C, and sampled every 15 minutes. José took us into the roasting room, and even though the oven wasn't operating at the time, the smell of roasted cocoa was divine; indeed, there were some roasted beans still in the tray, and they tasted delicious.
After roasting the beans are left to cool for two hours, and then they are ground by hand using ancient-looking grinding stones made from volcanic rock. This separates the bean's skin (the parchment) from the bean itself, and this mixture of crushed bean and skin is put into a machine that separates the two by blowing air through the mixture; the heavier seeds fall down while the parchment is blown away. They used to do this by hand, in the same way that rice is winnowed by hand in places like Indonesia, but the machine is much more efficient.
The parchment goes off to make fertiliser – though the owner is experimenting with making a chocolate tea from it, which could be interesting – and the beans are then put into the grinder, four times. The first two times the beans are ground into powder, but for the third and fourth grindings, it turns into a liquid as the oil stored in the beans gets released. Some factories extract the oil and sell it separately, adding fats like butter or milk to take its place, but at El Castillo they are proud of the fact that they leave the oil in the chocolate, as it means their product contains just two ingredients: cocoa and sugar.
Talking of sugar, the next stage is to finely grind the chocolate up with organic cane sugar for two hours. The machine that does this is a round drum, full of liquid chocolate that looks hypnotic and smells divine; this is the river of chocolate from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in miniature, and José fished out a couple of short wooden sticks so we could have a taste. At this stage you can still detect the sugar granules in the mix, but it's definitely recognisable as chocolate.
If we thought the sugar mixer was hypnotic to watch, it was nothing compared to the flavour mixer. This is where they mix in the other ingredients, such as rum, cashew nuts, orange peel, more sugar, coffee, or more cocoa seeds (or 'nibs' as they're called if used as a raw ingredient). The mixer combines a rotating flywheel, a chocolate spout and a trough full of rich, dark goo that gently turns into itself like a chocolate lava flow. At this stage the chocolate is even finer, and it tastes divine.
Once the ingredients are thoroughly mixed in – again, after two hours in the mixer – the chocolate is poured into moulds and put on a vibrating shelf that knocks all the air out of the mixture, so that the final bars will be structurally sound. Then it's into the fridge for – you guessed it – two hours for the chocolate to set, and the final product is packaged by hand into a heat-sealed foil wrapper with a paper label.
The result is a chocolate bar that's clearly hand-made. The texture is still slightly unrefined – you can feel the granules of cocoa and sugar on your tongue as it melts – but the taste is clean and simple enough for you to taste the individual ingredients of cocoa, sugar and (in the unflavoured versions) absolutely nothing else.
It also goes rather well with local Matagalpan coffee, as we discovered at the end of the tour. Interestingly, this chocolate doesn't sell to Nicaraguans, as it's too expensive; the growing process is complicated and difficult, so cocoa beans sell for a premium, and that's why local chocolate is so low in cocoa content. Chocolate bars with 50% or 75% cocoa content are far too expensive for the locals to buy, at US$1 for a standard-size bar, so the only market for El Castillo's products are the tourists that visit Matagalpa, and who shop in the few outlets that stock their products. This is, quite literally, a cottage industry, with the chocolate being produced in a small breeze-block building behind the owner's house. They are trying to get accredited so they can start to sell their chocolate abroad, but for now this is a purely Nicaraguan industry (apart from one outlet in neighbouring Honduras).
If Nicaraguan chocolate takes over the world, then this is where it started...