Cocoa & Craftsmanship

I may have mentioned this before, but my writer-self tends to make me a bit of a homebody. Left to my own devices, I burrow anti-socially into whatever authorial project I’m currently engaged with, avoiding distraction (i.e. people) at all costs. Upon taking a quiz to determine which of the six types of writers I am, I scored as 100% weird recluse (with only a 33% dash of Ray of Sunshine to cut the Yikes!). That kind of says it all, I think.

But these last few years, I’ve made an effort to try to prioritize people, experiences, and adventure, as well as my writing. So I’m always grateful when friends who are cooler than I am come up with un-pass-up-able activity ideas.

A few weeks ago, this meant a visit to Tan Bun Skrati, a chocolate-making operation run by Rutger (Dutch) and Ellen (Dutch-Surinamese), a husband-and-wife duo. Built upon traditional cacao-processing techniques bequeathed to Ellen via her Surinamese mother and grandmother, Tan Bun Skrati offers workshops as well as various cacao-oid products (teas, chocolate bars, wine, vinegar, etc.). This operation is run out of their home, a quaint dwelling set behind high flowering shrubs and heavily-leaved trees–so well hidden, we passed it twice before realizing where it was.

The workshop started out on a high-note as we were served a cacao-based tea called skrati. Steeped from cacao nib husks, the tea was surprisingly delicious: fragrant and light.

While we sipped, we learned about the varieties of cacao trees found throughout South America and the (many) steps involved in transforming cacao, the plant, into chocolate, the treat we adore.

Then it was time to put into practice what we’d learned. Three nibs at a time, we cracked the dried beans, separated the husks from the flesh, and ground the nib into a paste to be transformed in hot cocoa or chocolate ice cream. Even this sampling of the work that goes into hand-made chocolate was enough to underscore what a labor of love the process is. If my 20 nibs wore me out, what would it be like to process enough nibs to source an artisanal chocolate business now 7 years in the running?

That’s a LOT of cacao.

From there, we moved on to chocolate bar tasting. We were given two bars (whose nibs came from different, small-scale cacao gardens across Paramaribo) to nibble and analyze, marking down our flavor assessments on the provided scorecard. Did we taste wood? Berry? Chalk? Spice?

Truthfully, I didn’t expect to distinguish much between the bars. What’s one Hershey kiss from another, right?

But I was totally wrong. One chocolate was distinctly wood-chippy, herbaceous, earthy. The other was sour, with a notable element of cherry. Don’t get me wrong–I’m confident I’ll go on to enjoy many a commercially-produced chocolate; Twix and Reeses will never be displaced in my American heart. But our Tan Bun Skrati tasting revealed a complex, enigmatic, alluring element I’d never realized chocolate possessed.

The workshop concluded with planting our own cacao nibs–future cacao trees. Apparently, the rain-forest version of this occurs when monkeys suck off the sweet, lychee-like fruit surrounding the nib (it’s pretty tasty–those monkeys know what’s up!) then cast the stripped seed to the forest floor. I doubt my attempts to grow a cacao tree will be as successful (a doubt Ellen and Rutger apparently shared, since they also gave us already sprouting seedlings [pictured]). But fingers crossed!

All together, our Tan Bun Skrati excursion was a pretty cool experience (and one that left me wanting to re-watch Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche’s Chocolat). It was an extremely sense-ual activity: the plush scent of cacao, the grind of the nib beneath the pestle, the thick-sour-sultry taste of dark chocolate. And it was a reminder of the value of craftsmanship and perseverance in any art form. Just as Ellen and Rutger moved through every painstaking stage of making chocolate–nurturing the trees, harvesting the pods, removing the nibs, fermenting then drying them, shucking away the husk, grinding the nib, tempering and melting the chocolate–I, as a writer, have to engage in every stage of the writing process with respect and consciousness. And mistakes–chocolate melted at too high a heat or a plot-line pursued in vain–are no excuse for giving up.

Instead, they’re lessons learned, guides toward creating a worthy (and delicious!) artistic product.

A special thanks to our friends for 1) the idea of attending the workshop, 2) taking the cacao-grinding action shot, and 3) for being the perfect chocolate-making partners in crime. And an especially big shout-out to Makenzie. Thanks for rescuing me–without you, I’d still be grinding cacao nibs! 

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