PANAMA CHOCOLATE HIGHS by Ray & Patti Neumann
On a recent shopping trip to Chitré, while having lunch at RiccaPizza near the bus terminal, we met a man who works with chocolate farmers in Las Minas. Mr. Charles Martin, Asesor de Cacao (chocolate consultant), told us about his and his community’s efforts to get Las Minas on the map in terms of chocolate production in Panama. Las Minas is a perfect cocoa-growing area. Cocoa trees are jungle trees and cocoa thrives where moisture and shade are available, as is the case in Las Minas. All the cocoaproducing countries in the world are located along the equator, at most 20 degrees north or south, so Panama is one of the few countries in the world with climatic conditions that permit cacao production.
Last Tuesday, sixteen Pedasians caravanning in four vehicles took a lovely two-hour drive, through picturesque small towns, on winding but very well maintained roads, to Las Minas, Herrera, to discover for ourselves this wonderful Panamanian product— chocolate!. We arrived at the town church where Charles met us and took us to La Granja (The Farm), an agricultural extension station for la USMA, la Universidad de Santa María la Antigua (Chitré campus), and we began our tour. We were shown an area where the cocoa trees are grown, surrounded by other tall shade and coffee trees. Charles then described and demonstrated how the cocoa pods are harvested, fermented, dried, and readied for chocolate production. Lucas Hernández, the manager of the farm, opened the cocoa pods with a machete and explained the fermentation and drying of the beans inside while Charles translated. Fermentation of the cacao beans brings about chemical changes within the beans that produce the unique taste that we identify with chocolate.
Next we went to the kitchens and observed how the dried, husked beans are ground into a moist rich paste to make chocolate. Arelys Ramos, proprietor of Cacao Las Minas, the brand of chocolate produced in the District, and María, the chef at La Granja, demonstrated the chocolate-making process while Charles translated their comments. In a motorized version of the same type of mill used to hand-grind corn, wheat berries, or coffee, Arelys ground the cocoa nibs four times, the last three with added sugar to produce a 70/30% mixture of delicious, rich-tasting chocolate. María and Arelys assisted us in making our own chocolate bars using plastic molds, and the molds were placed in a freezer for a few minutes to allow the chocolate to fully harden while we ate a delicious Panamanian lunch prepared by María. This very entertaining tour takes about two to two and a half hours.
At our request, Charles arranged two optional side trips after lunch, the first to the local orchid-growing association’s greenhouse, where a group of local women reproduce and sell orchids from the District of Las Minas and from other areas of Panama. A very rare, protected species of orchid, La Flor del Espíritu Santo, Panama’s national flower, was on display. The second brief tour was a visit to the town’s church, conducted by a Sister from the parish, Hermana Teresita. The original church was built in the 1600s and extensively renovated in the 1800s. The town’s patron saint is Santa Barbara, the patron saint of miners, which is appropriate since the town’s name, Las Minas, means The Mines—gold was mined in Las Minas by indigenous peoples and later on a limited basis in the 1800s by a mine operator from California.
It was a beautiful sunny day for our adventure, and we would highly recommend this day trip. It represents a unique opportunity to participate in the making of one of our favorite and most tempting foods—chocolate! The Spanish word cacao means “food of the gods,” and Cacao Las Minas’s rich, dark chocolate is indeed worthy of that name!
Contact Mr. Charles Martin on WhatsApp for information, to buy chocolate, or to arrange a tour at.+507-6752-0857; or, if you speak Spanish, you can send a chat to Arelys Ramos, owner of Cacao Las Minas, at +507 6446-7909.