SAN ISIDRO DE HEREDIA – As the morning light filters through gauze curtains inside a small cottage, it reflects off three rows of small, thin squares of chocolate. It is a sheen that does not come easily.
From its start at a biologically diverse, partially shaded and certified organic farm in theCaribbean plains of Guápiles, the journey of the cacao in these chocolate squares is closely watched and controlled.
The care with which Sibú Chocolate’s chocolatiers cultivate, harvest and process the cacao is not unlike that given to the grapes of a fine wine.
Their white ap rons smudged, Julio Fernández, a middle-aged Tico, and George Soriano, a U.S. traveler, writer and former tour guide, admire the sweet squares on a table in their kitchen as they discuss how they intend to pioneer a new industry in Costa Rica: fine chocolate.
On the wall behind them hang diplomas from Ecole Chocolat, a professional school of chocolate arts, declaring them professional and master chocolatiers. The master’s program was undertaken in Paris.
A key part of chocolate’s allure is “how nice it looks,” says Soriano, taking a small square between his fingers. “It has to be shiny. It has to have a snap.” He breaks it in half, and it snaps loudly.
“Now smell it,” he says, putting it close to his nostrils and inhaling deeply. “When you taste chocolate, you apply some of the same criteria as you do to wine. Is it floral? Is it earthy? Is it fruity? Can you compare it to caramels, to coffees, to teas?”
This kind of chocolate connoisseurship has been gaining ground in Europe and the United States in recent years, as studies have shown that chocolate not only pleases the palate and supplies the brain with feel-good chemicals, but it also has some health benefits, such as lowering bad cholesterol.
The candy aisles inFirst World supermarkets feature shelf upon shelf of expensive, gourmet chocolate bars, all announcing their cacao content.
More recently, chocolate makers have also begun emphasizing the origin of the cacao used in the bars.
These chocolates are hard to find here in Costa Rica, however. Soriano and Fernández can name a few European or U.S. companies that advertise their use of Costa Rican cacao in their high-end chocolates, but Sibú appears to be the only company producing high-quality chocolate in Costa Rica using exclusively homegrown cacao.
With just about a year in business, Sibú Chocolate produces gourmet chocolates and truffles, about 3,000 pieces per month, and sells them exclusively in Costa Rica.
“Travelers who come to Costa Rica can bring some back home, and it’s a taste of something … authentic to Costa Rica,” Soriano says.
The designs laid across the tops of the truffles are traditional indigenous prints from Costa Rica. The name Sibú comes from the Bribrí and Cabécar indigenous people, who still populate the Talamanca mountain range and who have cultivated cacao for 3,000 years. Sibú is their god who spread the seeds creating all life on Earth.
“We thought it was a beautiful story and wanted to pay homage,” Soriano says.
Soriano and Fernández have immersed themselves in the history of cacao and chocolate, but it is the latter who seems to be the expert. A high school history teacher for more than 12 years at the Lincoln School in San José, Fernández plunges easily into the past.
“(The cacao plant) originates around the Andes and the Amazon basin, but somehow it was introduced to Central America and Mesoamerica about 3,000 years ago,” Fernández says.
Traded between indigenous peoples as a currency, cacao made its way to Mexico, where the Olmecs and other groups mixed it with chili peppers and vanilla in a drink reserved for their warriors and priests.
Fernández’s stories branch from one into the next, forking through history until Soriano gently prods him back toward his original narrative.
“In Costa Rica, it is still a sacred beverage,” Fernández says. “With the Maleko Indians, when someone dies, they bathe the body in cacao. With the Bribrí, when someone dies, they wash their hands with cacao and bathe the widow in it,” he says. “And whenever they get together, they drink it.”
It was precisely cacao’s Costa Rican roots that drew the partners into the business, spurred on by their love of chocolate and desire to rescue a disappearing tradition.
“Most of our economy has been based on things that the Spanish introduced. Cattle come from Eurasia and Africa, coffee from Ethiopia, sugar cane from India and bananas from Asia,” Fernández says. “Costa Rica has been producing cacao since pre-Colombian times.”
Much of the cacao produced in Costa Rica in recent decades has been of low quality, Fernández says, but he hopes that will change. Soriano compares it to coffee.
“There was moment when the coffee industry says, ‘You know what? We’re going to destroy all of the lower grade coffee and plant Arabica coffee. It’s going to be better, we’re going to be able to charge more for what we’re yielding,’ and it became a coveted crop. In some ways, we’re hoping to see that happen with the cacao industry here.”
The chocolatiers began business with a single order of 60 boxes of chocolates last December from Green Hotels, which owns several hotels around the country.
Fernández and Soriano hired a neighbor to help out around their tiny cottagekitchen. The trio can produce up to 500 chocolates a day – each mixed, poured, dipped and decorated by hand.
“We can assure you that no chocolate leaves our workshop without being approved, and the only way to do that is through constant tasting,” Soriano says with a grin.
Now, Sibú has invested in a fancy, silver machine, slightly smaller than a dresser, that mixes and pours the chocolate while a tiny conveyor belt runs the truffles – still hand loaded – under a curtain of liquid chocolate.
The conveyor then bounces the drips off before depositing the truffles into the waiting hands of one of the trio working the end of the machine. George says the contraption will double or triple their output.
“We are now just starting to reach out and say, ‘We are here if you want to try something different,’” Soriano says.
Even with the machine, the chocolate must be handled carefully. The chocolate’s temperature is tightly controlled and, once melted, it is poured over a marble table – a chocolatier’s technique – and mixed there to cool it just enough.
Humidity is closely monitored to avoid condensation on the chocolate, which causes sugar to “bloom,” or dissolve in the chocolate and rise to the surface. A bloom erases the much-coveted sheen, replacing it with an opaque, chalky look. The texture is also changed for the worse, they say.
“We don’t want to be in the minor leagues. We want to … make chocolate that’s as good as French or Swiss or Dutch or German or American chocolate,” says Fernández.
Mindful of the Tico image for environmental stewardship, the partners say they have sought to make the product as sustainable and organic as possible. Their boxes are hand-painted and made from recycled paper. The packaging is minimal.
The cacao comes from a farm certified as organic by the New York City-based Rainforest Alliance under the Sustainable Agriculture network. The ingredients used – organic vanilla, chili peppers, cashews, coriander and others – are all from Costa Rica. Even the company car has been certified as carbon neutral.
In addition to the chocolates, Sibú offers a chocolate tour as well. For more information, see www.sibuchocolate.com, or call 2268-1335.
To Get Your Cacao Fix
Sibú chocolates are sold at:
• Holterman & Compañía (Bodega 05), in Llorente de Tibás, 2297-1212.
• Vinum La Enoteca, in Escazú, 2289-5917.
• Boutique Kiosco SJO San José, in Barrio Amón, 2258-1829.
The chocolates are also provided to guests at the Arenas del Mar hotel in Manuel Antonio.