We had a mere few hours left in Itacaré, those of which were filled with heavy rain and uncertainty as to whether to head straight to Salvador or hang around and visit one last place that I had in mind: Vila Rosa.
Itacaré belongs to the ‘cocoa coast’ and, until recently, the town’s livelihood and history was very intimately connected to cocoa production. The town actually was a notorious hangout for Dutch and Portuguese pirates during the early colonial period and then later became a haven for cocoa plantations. When on a boat sailing through the river running next to the town, and then through Brazil, you’ll spot acres and acres of cocoa farms, boasting as much cocoa as you can possibly imagine. One farm of which belonging to Vila Rosa, a historic house only 30 minutes driving away from Itacaré.
It was pouring down with rain and we had to make a snap decision whilst driving out of the town. At Vila Rosa, you could head on an amazing cocoa farm tour for only 50 reais (about £10) and see how chocolate is made! But with the rain, would it be worth it? We approached a fork in the road and literally made our decision then and there. We swerved and headed to the cocoa farm, because how often do you get that kind of opportunity?
Some quick photos from the roof of our Airbnb… spot the papaya tree!
Exploring the town a little before saying goodbye for good…
After around 30 minutes of careful driving down an extremely narrow and winding highway through Bahia, we reached Vila Rosa, at first spotting a cutely decorated road sign and then the beautiful rose-pink colonial manor house at the side of the road, surrounded by tropical plants and trees. After a kerfuffle involving having no cash and having to drive back to a nearby down to find an ATM, we reached Vila Rosa AGAIN and were ready to on the much-anticipated cocoa tour!
We had some time before we began the tour, so we were shown inside to an incredibly beautiful garden that look something straight out of ‘The Secret Garden’. On the lower level was a large pond, which apparently you could SWIM in, which was surrounded by cocoa trees, exotic colourful flowers and all kinds of bushes and shrubs. Following the little stone paths and stairwells, you get taken up onto other higher levels of the garden where there was another cute tiny pink house, which housed the restaurant on site, originally being the workhouse of the farm, predominantly for the production of flour, hence it’s name ‘Casa de Farinha’ – House of Flour. At the very top of the garden was a small lake for kayaking, surrounded by a lush green forest. It was magical – you could’ve spent hours just enjoying the garden.
Shortly, the tour began and, alongside another Brazilian couple, we were off, starting by visiting the Vila Rosa vegetable and herb garden where they grow all of their ingredients for their dishes. We winded through the allotment before heading down a leafy path to cross a gate and a road, reaching the Atlantic rainforest on the other side and the beginning of the cocoa plantation.
The weather seemed to be holding up just for us, with the occasional burst of rain drizzling down but battling to stay away for next two hours or so. The cooler conditions were actually perfect for walking through the humid rainforest – I can’t imagine how it would’ve been in searing heat. We all bumbled further down and into the rainforest along the dirt path, heading towards the edge of the river where the main cocoa plantations sat.
Massive bamboo tree.
100 years ago the entire coast of Brazil was covered by the Atlantic rainforest. But pressure from logging, agriculture and the development of the population centres reduced the forest to 6% of the original size. The remaining 3% is located in the South of Bahia. Why was the forest saved here you may ask? One reason was the high cultivation of cocoa. The high value of cocoa over the past 150 years protected this part of the forest in the region. It was more lucrative to cultivate cocoa than to cut the forest for lumber.
We reached the edge of the river, overcast by thick cloud but still a stunning sight, engulfed by the rainforest. In the distance, fishermen stood at the riverbank, casting their nets into the water.
We walked along the riverside, being slowly absorbed into the cocoa plantation. Tall trees canopied above, protecting the low cocoa trees which thrive in the shade. Thick branches bore cocoa pods, some small, some as large (and even larger) as two fists. Some were green, unripe I think, and others turning a golden yellow. Others were ruby red (almost purple), bunched together in clusters in the distance. They were all beautiful.
Underneath, at the base of the trees, were luscious green plants with delicate white veins that apparently were extremely good at retaining water, and thus perfect for the water-thirsty cocoa trees. Our tour guide was an expert, leading us confidently through the plantations and talking about cocoa cultivation. We were apparently walking through a Cabruca – a form of forest-orchard. Cabruca is a method of agriculture used in the cultivation of cocoa involving the clearing smaller plants in a forest and leaving larger trees standing. Thus, cocoa trees are planted in the empty spaces. Cocoa, being a shade plant, benefits from the canopy of existing forest. The great news is that Cabruca is a system of cultivation that is less intensive and more respectful to the existing forest – hooray! The Cabruca we were walking through had large canopies of dende palms – the dende is also a huge part of Bahain culture, being a main ingredient in Bahaian dishes.
The plant that’s amazing at holding water. It’s also so beautiful and my favourite.
I had never seen a cacao pod in real life and even got to hold and try the inside of one. The hard shell protects around 20-50 beans which are covered in a white, fleshy pulp. Our guide cracked open a pod, and let us eat the insides. As you can imagine, it didn’t taste at all like chocolate, being sweet, fruity and little tangy, but incredibly delicious. I took the pod along with me on the walk through the plantation as a refreshing snack, sucking on the seeds and spitting them onto the ground, ready to grow into a new tree (I hope). Amongst the cacophony of foliage were a handful of cocoa farmers and harvesters, clearing space and harvesting the cocoa pods. They rustled around, camouflaged in their khaki green uniforms, and disappeared quickly out of site, like wild animals in the night.
The flower that comes before the cocoa fruit!
The cacao tree produces fruit all year long, the early harvest being between May and September and the major harvest between October and December. The fruit is harvested by these famers by hand and the fruit is reached on the upper branches using a ‘podão’ – literally ‘big pruner’ – which is a a 2-3 meter long dowel with a hooked knife at the end. The cacao is then collected off the floor with another short handled hooked knife and deposited into a wicker basket worn on the farmer’s backs. The cacao is then brought either by man or mule to a central area to be cracked and processed.
Large leaves arched above us, like a tunnel, leading the way through the plantation along the dirt path, covered with fallen leaves. We were heading back towards Vila Rosa to find out what the next step was in the life of a cocoa pod. We meandered through the magical garden once more and toward another house, where the chocolate was being made in their artisanal chocolate factory.
Once the cocoa is harvested, it’s cracked with a short knife and the goard is divided into two with the twist of the wrist. The white pulp and seeds are thrown into a wicker basket and layered with banana leaves. Each goard contains 20-50 beans. At this point the cacao is either placed in a press to extract the “mel do cacau” (honey of the cocoa) or b) brought to the baraça to enter a period of fermentation in the ‘cocho’.
Cocoa is not just a seed that makes chocolate. Cocoa has a white pulp that when pressed releases a nectar known as the honey of the cocoa – this is the white fleshy part covering the seed that we got to taste earlier. It’s frozen once extracted as it begins to ferment rapidly in its natural state. We got a chance to try this amazing liquid too – it’s really a nectar straight from the heavens. So delightfully sweet yet tangy, especially when cold. We got to sample it with a little cachaça (a Brazilian spirit made from sugar cane) and oh boy, it was even better.
Anyway, after the pulp and seeds are removed from the cocoa goard they are placed in a wooden box called the ‘cocho’. Here the sugars begin the fermentation process. The temperature rises dramatically to 45-50 degrees Celsius and the seeds stop germinating. Fermentation changes the seeds’ colour from white or purple to dark brown. Chemically, fermentation alters the tannins and mellows the bitterness of the cocoa. The fermentation process lasts 5-7 days, during which they are turned on a daily basis. At the end of the fermentation, the beans are brought to the terrace of the “barraça” and dried by the sun. They are spread on the floor of the “barraça” and turned with a rake until dry. They lose up to 75% of their weight in water loss during this process, after which they can be used to make the chocolate that we all love!
The process of making chocolate afterwards is actually a simple one. First, the beans are roasted carefully at a very specific temperature to full release the rich aromas of the beans, reduce the moisture (again), remove any bitter substances and to make the removal of the husks easier.
Then the beans must be winnowed. Winnowing is the process of separating the shells from the bean. After the bean has been roasted, the shell is easily removed, and this can be done with industrial machines. Once the husks are removed, the beans are crushed and turned into the form of ‘nibs’. The husk can be used for tea and the nibs can be eaten straight away! All you health foodies out there are probably already throwing them into your granola every morning (I know I am…)
The bean roaster.
The bean-to-nib cracking machine.
Afterwards, the nibs are chucked into a Melanguer, a machine used to mix the chocolate ingredients together. At Vila Rosa, its used to refine and conch the chocolate. Cocoa beans and sugar are combined to form a liquid called the ‘liquer’ of the cocoa. It takes an average of 12 hours to make a refined liquer to make small enough particles to reach that creamy chocolate texture we all know. At this point you can add powdered milk, cocoa butter, vanilla or nuts! After, it’s then poured into moulds and set, making chocolate!
We got to sample the chocolate throughout this process and it was DIVINE. From the bitter nib to the sweet final product to the jam of the cacao – a delicious cocoa ‘syrup’ (that didn’t actually taste like chocolate) which I so wish I had bought from the gift shop.
With the sweet taste of chocolate in our mouths, we had a brief tour of the main Vila Rosa Manor House before our tour came to a close. This beautiful colonial house was built in the 1930s with strong art deco and art nouveau influences, being a beautiful example of a colonial architecture of the period. It was actually then abandoned for 5 years and bought by New Yorker Alan Slesinger, then being renovated for 7 years and opened to the public in 2011.
At the end of the tour, we, of course, visited the gift shop, which sold every cocoa product produced on site. From chocolate bars, to truffles, to cocoa jam, butter and nectar, it was the perfect end to the guided tour. We grabbed some little chocolate bars of various flavours and a delectable homemade brownie to eat on our long car journey back to Salvador, where we were to spend the last days of our time in Bahia.
And here are some pics from the ride back to Salvador…