It’s nice to know you can pay it forward at the same time that you spoil your sweetheart with chocolate. A program in the Dominican Republic, Tour de Chocolate, offers travellers a chance to learn where the sweet treat comes from while, at the same time, supporting farmers and a growing industry. Conacado (the National Confederation of Dominican Cacao Producers), a co-operative organization that represents almost 10,000 farmers in seven regions around the island, is the group behind the chocolate tour that begins near Punta Cana and La Romana. The island’s cacao bean growers are inviting visitors to explore their farms and communities to learn where some of the world’s finest organic chocolate is produced, and how the Fairtrade movement has helped improve lives. They’ve created a guided chocolate tour that includes stops at family farms and cacao bean-processing facilities. Tours are US$30 and are in Spanish, so be sure to request an English translator when booking. Thanks to Fairtrade social premiums, the producers are paid for their organic cocoa beans which results in agricultural and social benefits to the community. It’s good to know where your food comes from, and organic chocolate, purchased at a fair price, really does taste sweeter.
The chocolate route
1. Guides meet visitors in Hato Mayor del Rey at 9 a.m. at a Conacado receiving facility where farmers deliver their freshly harvested beans. Learn how cacao beans are fermented in large wooden boxes, then spread out to dry in poly-covered greenhouses, and sample a delicious Creole chocolate drink. There is also a tour out of El Seibo, with a similar itinerary ending in Los Botados.
2. The route takes you through small towns and down winding rural roads lined with traditional houses, painted in ice-cream colours, where bananas and avocados thrive among the forests of cacao.
3. Next stop: the cacao farms in Vicentillo where tall cacao trees, mango and citrus thrive. Witness how the huge orange-and-purple cacao pods are harvested by hand, and taste the sweet, gooey fruit that goes into other local products.
4. From there, the tour heads to the Esperanzas Unidas women’s association in Vicentillo. The women work together to support their community and make new cacao products like cacao wine and marmalade. Watch as the women demonstrate the traditional process of roasting cacao beans over a fire and grinding them with a mortar and pestle to create rustic drinking chocolate.
5. Finish the tour at an outdoor dining room with a lunch of braised beef, fried plantains, salads and sweets, prepared by the local women’s group. They also renovated a traditional Dominican cottage in Los Botados into a hostel that sleeps 20 travellers, and run additional local tours, including hiking and horseback riding.
4 steps from bean to bar
Step 1: Growth
In the D.R., cacao trees grow on farms alongside the country’s lush mountains. The large, leathery cacao pods sprout haphazardly from tiny flowers along the branches of the gangly, 10-m-tall trees.
Step 2: Harvest
Farmers harvest the pods and remove the seeds (cacao beans) from the soft, white pulp, then pack them into sacks and carry them to drying facilities. The beans must be transported within hours of harvest to be fermented, often by mule.
Step 3: Fermentation
The cacao beans are fermented in big wooden boxes for three to seven days. Once the pulp erodes away, it leaves an acidic aroma and a better quality cacao bean.
Step 4: Drying
The fermented beans are spread out in drying tunnels, long plastic-sheathed greenhouses, and raked while they dry. Dried beans are packed into sacks and shipped to top chocolate makers around the world.