A blog about chocolate travels, news, and reviews

Finca Köbö: a chocolate farm in a tropical paradise November 18, 2009

Filed under: ChocoFrolics,Costa Rica — Theobromita @ 2:46 am

A chocolate farm surrounded by tropical rainforest is pretty much this girl’s dream come true. As a biologist, I love being in the rainforest more than the paparazzi love Britney. When I heard that Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula was home to a small chocolate farm, I thought that I had finally found my Nirvana. And I had to go.

Although Costa Rica is an immensely popular tourist destination, I had been skeptical of its appeal, partly due to its popularity. I tend to prefer more “out of the way” places, but in January 2008 I decided to take a week to see whether Costa Rica really was the biological diversity haven everybody said it was. I told my PhD advisor I was going to work off campus for a week, hopped a flight, and landed in Costa Rica in search of adventure. It didn’t take long for me to learn that the Osa Peninsula is the least visited of all the regions in Costa Rica, and home to the largest expanse of rainforest in the country—Corcovado National Park. Seemingly hidden in the pages of my travel guide was a short description of a chocolate farm. Chocolate farm? Next to a rainforest? How had I survived to the age of 34 without knowing of this little gem? I departed the next morning from San Jose on the 12 hour bus to the Osa to find out if this really was all I imagined it would be.

My experience at Finca Köbö was more rewarding than I expected, partly owing to the biological history of the place, and the eco-friendly owner, Alex Mena. In fairness, if you’re hoping for piles of fancy chocolates amid a lush tropical setting, this isn’t the place to find it. But if you want to see how cacao is grown, learn more about the relationship between cacao plantations and primary forest, and enjoy other aspects of being in close proximity to neotropical jungle, Finca Köbö is where it’s at.

From our late night arrival until our final departure, the staff were unfailingly friendly—coming out to the main road to meet us where the bus dropped us off in the middle of the night, pointing out all the different bird species around the ranch, and picking us up from the remote eastern gate of Corcovado N.P. after our 2 day excursion. Alex was eager to share the history of the ranch with us, and I was immensely impressed by his approach to cultivation and conservation. The ranch had previously been owned by a man who actively fought the local government to keep a portion of the property as primary forest, which is part of what attracted Alex to it when it came up for sale. The ranch had a number of cacao trees on it, but many were infected with a fungus, limiting the cacao yield. Alex reasoned that since fungus grows in humid environments, the fungus might be killed off if the trees were thinned out a bit to allow more air and sunlight to penetrate. He was right, and he proceeded to convert most of the traditional cacao to organic, and has enjoyed increased crop yields every year for the past several years.

Alex is also a big proponent for maintaining biological corridors, which is rare among non-bio nerds. He understands that animals in small forest remnants fare better with access to larger forest tracts, and not only maintains corridors on his property, but readily explains the importance to guests in a way that is easily understood by all. He is committed not just to producing chocolate and preserving the forest closest to him, but to teaching others the importance of conservation, and how to go about it. He has a holistic view of life that is reflected in everything he does. Food crops are grown organically on-site, and used in the meals served to guests. His partner, an Austrian-born osteopath and physiotherapist, provides massages and treatments to guests. He limits the number of tourists into the ranch’s primary forest in order to minimize impact on wildlife there.

All of this makes Finca Köbö a great destination for nature lovers, but the chocolate lovers among us come for the chocolate. The focus here is on production rather than finished chocolate. Alex provides tours of the ranch that walk guests through the history of the cacao tree, its relation to the forest and which animals feed on it (coati and monkeys among others), facts and figures on chocolate producers and consumers (Ivory Coast produces the most cacao, the US consumes the most), and how the chocolate is made. The tour ends with chocolate fondue served up with fruit and house-made banana bread, and blocks of unsweetened chocolate are for sale in the gift shop. In a perfect world there would also be stacks of chocolates with tropical influence, maybe some passionfruit or ginger chocolates, but alas. Despite the dearth of refined chocolate available, I highly recommend Finca Köbö to anyone interested in seeing the raw material that makes up this food of the gods, or anyone interested in combining a little nature with their chocolate education. I asked Alex why he named his ranch (finca) Köbö, and he told me it is the Guayami word for dream. Definitely a dream Chocofrolic destination


Chocolati: a hot chocolate cafe in a sea of coffee shops December 23, 2008

Filed under: Seattle — Theobromita @ 4:41 pm

Everyone knows that Seattle loves coffee. And rightly so–the rain and gray make a hot cup o’ joe a welcome pick me up.  But when it snows, it’s hard to beat a cup of hot chocolate to warm your soul. Much to my great fortune, I found myself in Seattle last week, staying with a friend in hip Wallingford, when the crazy snows (eight inches!) started to fall. On my way to the grocery store for provisions, I passed Chocolati, a chocolate cafe that served up just what the doctor ordered.

The list of hot chocolates included peppermint, turtle (hazlenut and caramel), cayenne, and europa. Hmmm…Europa? When I asked the chocolatier what the Europa was, he said it was “a very thick sipping chocolate.” Immediately I hoped for Spanish chocolate stateside…”like liquid pudding” I cautiously asked? “Like liquid pudding” he said. Done. Several minutes later I was enjoying the closest thing to Spanish chocolate I’ve had outside of Spain. Mmmm…kudos to the Chocolati peeps for realizing how awesome Spanish chocolate is!

My partner in crime had the cayenne chocolate, which was also delicious. The first taste is smooth and rich, and the cayenne kicks in at the end. Every sip has the great combination of delicious chocolate and spice–not too strong or soft on either one; elegantly balanced on all counts.

I’m told they have a few locations scattered throughout the Seattle area, so if you find yourself downtown, in Wallingford, or along Greenlake, I highly recommend checking them out. In addition to hot chocolates, they sell coffee and tea drinks, a few pastries, and of course, truffles. The truffle flavors on offer included marionberry, cinnamon almond aztec, and espresso mint. Definitely worth a future visit.


Hot Chocolate Spanish Style August 6, 2008

Filed under: ChocoFrolics,Spain — Theobromita @ 10:45 pm

My first ever venture outside of the US was to Spain the summer after my first year in college.

I have had a lifelong obsession with Spain for no particular reason. I think lots of people have countries or regions they have always been fascinated with for reasons they can’t quite put their fingers on, and for me, that was Spain. I still remember the first glimpse I had as we approached–olive groves amid an arid landscape. My first week was spent on a tour of the major cities: Madrid to see the famed works of Goya and Velazquez; Sevilla for the best flamenco; Granada to admire the Moorish Alcazar; and finally Salamanca where I would live with a Spanish family for the next month. I spent my days in classes trying to pay attention to lectures on Spanish literature, and my nights dancing like it was my job. In fairness, I am pretty certain that dancing is the job of all Spaniards. No matter what night of the week it was, the clubs were always full of Spaniards until the wee hours (3…4…5 am). I have no idea how anyone actually functioned at a “real” job after dancing all night, every night.

Aside from dancing, one of my greatest memories of that time was the hot chocolate I enjoyed at cafes in my neighborhood. I remembered it being thick and creamy…so thick it was like hot pudding. Rich and delicious and the kind of hot chocolate that makes you realize what hot chocolate is supposed to be like. Not warm milk with the flavoring of chocolate. I am talking about HOT. CHOCOLATE.

After leaving Spain, I had hoped to encounter this again, in a Spanish or hispanic restaurant in the US, or even in Mexico, but no dice. After several years of searching in vain, I began to think that i had created this delicacy in my head…that the Spanish chocolate I remembered was a Shangri-La of chocolatey goodness, and that I was doomed never to taste such chocolate again.

Then in April my boyfriend took me to Barcelona for my birthday. On our 2nd day in the city, we walked up Las Ramblas to visit the famed La Boqueria market. I snapped a couple of photos of the market entrance, and noticed a coffee & hot chocolate vendor to my left, and immediately thoughts of Spanish chocolate came rushing back to me. I grabbed my beau, sidled up to the counter, and ordered two chocolates con churros. Several minutes later we were served miniature cups of HOT. CHOCOLATE.

Ahhh….it does exist! So if you have not yet had the fortune of traveling to Spain, and you love chocolate, do yourself a favor and book a trip to Barcelona. You can find the chocolate anywhere, but only in Barcelona can you enjoy it in one of the world’s greatest markets, before a day exploring the works of Miro, Gaudi, and Picasso, as well as the quirky chocolate museum. But that’s a story for another time…


Sukhothai Chocolate Buffet

Filed under: ChocoFrolics,Thailand — Theobromita @ 10:01 pm

I know what you’re thinking: chocolate? in Bangkok? It’s true. And what chocolate it is!

I first visited the chocolate buffet while doing my graduate research in Thailand in 2005. A friend of mine who worked at the American Embassy in Bangkok told me about it, and one visit was all it took to hook me for life.

In the gorgeous Sukhothai hotel, just south of Lumphini Park, the Chocolate Buffet is a high tea buffet served every Friday-Sunday from 2-6 pm in the hotel lobby. As it is a high tea, you are served a pot of tea of your choosing (I recommend the earl grey or the darjeeling) and/or coffee. When I first asked for water, i was pleasantly surprised to receive instead lemongrass water–a deliciously refreshing palate cleanser that is now one of my favorite drinks.

There are two buffet tables–one sweet and one savory–on either side of the lobby. The savory side has amazing bite-sized sandwiches like green apple and brie on pretzel bread, roasted veggies on tomato-pesto bread, and salmon and dill on mini croissants. There is a modest selection of simple but fresh sushi (rolls of cucumber, tuna, salmon) along with plentiful fresh wasabi, and two rotating asian savory dishes such as shu mai or spring rolls or satay. All of this is peppered with fresh fruit like mangosteen, rambutan, pineapple, and the best passionfruit around.

The sweet side has traditional high-tea sweets like sticky toffee pudding and scones. But you know you’re not in Kansas anymore when you see the passionfruit jam. The kid in you will delight at the 3 silver urns of house made ice cream, and the adventurous gourmand in you will delight at finding out that the yellow-orange one is indeed pumpkin, and that’s not vanilla, but white chocolate with olive. This latter daring flavor is representative of the risks the creators of the chocolate buffet are willing to take: alongside traditional bonbons, you find panna cotta in individual shot glasses: cream on top and chocolate on the bottom infused with red chili. Next to a flourless chocolate torte, you find a cross between a chocolate and a fudge topped with sea salt. There are several flavors of macaroons, and countless other chocolate cakes.

But the crowning glory to the whole thing is the chocolate cart. It has about 16 types of chocolate including 2 types of gianduja, and ranges from white chocolate all the way thru 100% cacao. Each individual bowl holds bite-sized chocolate nibs you can taste, and all are labelled with their cocoa percentage and origin. The cart is manned by an attendant who will take whatever chocolate/s you choose, combine them in a pot with milk, and melt them together to serve you a chocolate shot. Hi. A chocolate shot. HEAVEN.

The last time I went, the cost was Bt 800++ which comes out to about US$25. A little pricey, but worth every penny. If I ever manage to earn more than a grad student salary, I plan to treat myself to a stay at the hotel on a weekend so that I can enjoy the buffet and then collapse in my luxurious room in a glorious chocolate coma.