Chocolate doesn’t contain caffeine! (A trip to the Choco Museum in Cusco, Peru)

 

Photo of ‘Cacao Fruit’ by Anevay Darlington

The longest love affair of my life has been with chocolate. Other loves have come and gone, but chocolate, proving he’s never jealous of the attentions I have given to others, has swooped in to comfort me during times of heartache.

Drinking cacao nib shell tea

While visiting Cusco, Peru, my daughter, Anevay, asked to do one thing: take a chocolate-making class at the Choco Museum. She didn’t have to ask me twice!

Located just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas, the museum greeted Anevay and I with the tantalizing aromas of chocolate and spices. We were handed small, steaming cups of Mate de Cocoa, a delicious, subtle brew made from cocoa nib shells. While waiting for our class, we wandered the museum and read many of the placards. I learned something that will forever change my world view:

CHOCOLATE DOESN’T CONTAIN CAFFEINE!!

For years, I’ve foregone eating chocolate in the evening, believing the urban legend that it would keep me awake at night. Standing there in the museum, I heard angels singing. The world melted into chocolate. No longer would be romance with Chocolate be a part-time affair! For now until eternity he can accompany me into those long, dark, lonely nights–

“Um, Mom?” Anevay’s voice knocked me from my cloud. “Are you OK?”

I nodded. Pride kept me from making too much of a fool out of myself in front of my kid.

The rumor that chocolate contains caffeine is based on a confusion between two similar alkaloids: caffeine and theobromine. While they are both stimulants, theobromine is gentle, and delivers a feeling of well-being to whomever ingests it. This means that when folks who are feeling blue eat chocolate, there’s a valid reason!

We were soon called to our class. While I won’t bore you with all the details, suffice to say there were a few great moments:

  • Learning the process of making chocolate, from the collection of the cacao fruit (which needs to be harvested by hand… we later tasted one fresh in the rainforest) to fermentation (to mellow the flavor and make it less bitter), drying in the sun, roasting (we did this by hand the way the ancient Inca people did),  the removal of the shells and the crushing of the nibs (the part of the fruit that contains cocoa solids and cocoa butter), and finally, conching, which is the way chocolate-makers mix the crushed nibs over the course of a couple of days to make it creamy.
  • Making two kinds of hot chocolate: one, a spicy  style in the way of the ancient Inca, with red pepper and no sugar; and the other, with milk and sugar, two goods that came over with the Spanish in the 1500s.
  • Taking the chocolate we had processed and pouring it into molds over various treats we had chosen (I was partial to adding coca- not cocaine, folks, but the crushed leaves of the coca plant!- and sea salt, while the kid also added coca and all sorts of little store-bought sweet candies).
  • Walking through the streets of Cusco to eat our chocolate.

By 2050, it’s been predicted that many of the areas that grow cacao will have such different climates that the plant will suffer. The area around Iquitos, in Peru, might be one of the last remaining places the plant can be grown, and therefore, that’s where conservation efforts are being focused. The idea of not having chocolate… Shiver!

Learning a bit about how chocolate is made, tasting the fruit in its raw, fresh form, seeing it grow in the wild (which we eventually did in Tambopata, Peru), and finding out that climate change is quickly ruining the habitat for the plant, gave me a new appreciation for  this fabulous fruit.

_____________________________________

A Note On Free Trade vs. Non-Free Trade Chocolate

While I’ve always had an eye for sustainably grown products, I’ll never, ever be eating a Hershey’s bar (or other corporate-created chocolate) again. While this chocolate mega-company likes to publicize its involvement with helping the San Juan de Cheni community in Junin, Peru, rebuilding the town after it was “destroyed” by guerilla warfare, the darker side to the story is that the company is there ONLY to restore the cocoa-producing capacity (and does nothing to curb the child trafficking and slavery potentially happening in the cocoa fields). Below is a documentary shot in the Ivory Coast (Africa) about the chocolate trade. While clearly not shot in Peru, the issues are the same. Companies like Hershey’s refuse to be Free Trade certified, meaning that workers on cacao farms aren’t paid fairly, children are forced to work, and worse…

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15 Responses to Chocolate doesn’t contain caffeine! (A trip to the Choco Museum in Cusco, Peru)

  1. Oooh there’s a chocolate museum in Cuzco… adding that to the list!! Your Peru posts are making me itchy to get there. It’s been on the list far too long. I especially appreciated the link to the documentary about the abuses inside the chocolate industry. The older I get and the more I travel the more committed I get to supporting fair trade and green certified industry. As usual, I loved it! :)

  2. Melissa says:

    Yep, there certainly is a chocolate museum in Cusco! I think your gang would enjoy it, although you’d also love going into the forest to learn more about cacao directly from the farmers. I have a few ideas you might like…

  3. Karon says:

    Don’t know if I will ever make it to Peru, but if I do the chocolate museum is definitely on my list!

  4. OH. life is SO GOOD. i think i need to go find some chocolate. lovely!!

  5. Oh, you had me at chocolate. Thanks for the info on free trade chocolate – I didn’t know that there were so many serious issues surrounding cocoa production. Definitely food for thought (no pun intended ;)

  6. Yum!! I would so love to go to this museum. I LOVE chocolate…Just another reason to visit Peru.

  7. This looks like a fun class. We got to see some coffee trees when we were in Hawaii and nibbled a bean off a tree. That was fun too. Would love to see chocolate production from the bean stage.

  8. I took that class! :) It was so much fun! I tried to memorize the process so I could buy my own cacao beans and make them at home! I miss Peru.:) Great post!

  9. Hooray! We did this in Guatemala. It’s sooooo fun. I normally don’t post links, but here’s our experience.

    http://travelexperta.com/2013/06/chocolate-making-workshop.html

  10. I love all of the rumors that fly around related to food, especially here in Spain. I avoided chocolate as a teen, afraid it would give me zits! Believe it or not, I’m still really iffy on the stuff!

  11. I’d love to try the Incan hot chocolate made with red pepper. And thanks for dispelling the myth that chocolate contains caffeine. Too bad they didn’t post a sign saying it was calorie free.

  12. I’m savoring a chocolate bar with green tea right this moment. Delicious read!

  13. Conservation for chocolate – yes, please!

  14. Anevay Darlington says:

    Great post momma! Loved that class, one of the (many) highlights, WHEN we go back to peru we’ll definitely have to do another class there, and maybe I’ll get all the steps memorized :)

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