Two years ago I wrote about my disappointing experience eating fresh cacao in Cuba. Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is the tree that chocolate comes from. The fruit is a big pod that forms directly on the trunk and older growth of the tree. It kind of looks like a squash and smells like one too.
Chocolate is made by fermenting, sun drying, and sometimes slow roasting the little beans that form inside the pod. However, a sweet, white, and sticky flesh grows around the beans that can be eaten fresh out of the pod. Eating that fresh flesh was on my list of things to do before I die; however, my first attempt was thwarted by an over-ripe pod that was neither sweet nor sticky and kind of tasted like a giant eraser for BIG mistakes.
When we were planning this trip I knew that we would come into contact with fresh cacao again and that I was not going to miss the opportunity to have a proper do-over. Still, I thought trying cacao in Dominica would mean making a special trip to a cacao plantation, but it turns out that cacao trees grow practically everywhere on the island. The tree grows well in mountain regions where the weather is humid and shaded by taller forest trees. That pretty much describes the entire island of Dominica, save the city where we stayed and a handful of dryer areas on the west coast.
Most flights come into Dominica on the east coast and it’s about an hour and half drive through the interior to get to the capital, Roseau. I must have spotted a million cacao trees along the route, although we did not stop to pick one on that day. I had hoped I could buy one from the market, but while I did purchase several unusual items there I never did see a cacao pod for sale. I think that may be simply because it is so easy to come by. Why buy one at the market when you can pick a pod right off the tree growing in your own yard?
About a week into the trip we decided to go stay on the north side of the island for a few days as a way to explore that region. On the way back our taxi took us along the same road through the interior. I asked about cacao, and our driver Alwyn (A safe and cautious driver. Call him if you’re in Dominica.) told me that the orange pods are ripe. I explained my desire to try a fresh one so he indulged me by stopping along the way so I could nab one off of a tree. Apologies to whomever I ripped the pod off from!
Davin videoed me opening it up.
I will add to my rather lackluster initial description and say that it was very sweet but also a little tangy like citrus or passionfruit.
Not long after we had the good fortune to visit an old plantation on the south side of the island (owned by my distant relatives) where we discovered the largest and most productive cacao tree I have ever seen.
Here’s a closeup on the same tree. Isn’t it amazing?
My newly found relation Michael picked a pod from the tree so we could compare. It wasn’t as juicy as the first but was still really, really delicious and Davin and I devoured it all between us.
On another occasion, we visited a friend living in the Roseau Valley, which to be clear is up in the mountains and isn’t anything like my concept of a valley at all. She had a tree growing beside her house that was covered in blooms. So pretty!
This experience has lead me to the conclusion that I too would like to have a cacao tree growing in my yard. All I need is a yard. Somewhere in the tropics. No sweat, right?
In St. Lucia we stayed on an organic food farm that doubled as a cacao plantation. I spent a week up close and personal with hundreds of cacao trees and even tasted a few more. None of them were ever as good as that first fruit, but pretty darn great none-the-less. The building in this photo is a fancy cacao drying house. Trays full of fermented beans slide out onto the tracks and can be easily returned to the house when it rains. Which in the mountains, is often.
If you can generate tropical conditions in your home, you might try your hand at growing cacao trees indoors. You’re going to need a lot of humidity! I think I’ll save it for when I get that yard in the tropics, but if you do try please let us know how it goes.