On our third day in Cuba we took a trip organized by our hotel up into the Sierra Maestra mountains. There were a few different legs to the excursion, the first of which was a stop at around the halfway mark to get our bearings and snap a few photos of the view. It also served as a welcome break from the insane drive which involved our driver racing our van against another van, narrowly passing in some very extreme conditions and taking roller coaster turns on a road with almost nothing between our vehicle and a very long drop down the side of the mountain. Most of us hung onto our seats with our hearts in our mouths. Others felt sick but no one threw up. Did I mention there were no seat belts?
We stopped at a schoolhouse where a group of farmers were setup along a short wall selling fruit and handicrafts. I bought a red necklace made from seeds, 2 shell rings, and a fresh cacao pod. Cacao is the fruit that chocolate is made from. It grows on a tree but looks like a squash on the outside and is filled with beans on the inside that are transformed into delicious chocolate. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see the cacao pod sitting among little bananas and green-skinned oranges. It was quite an unexpected surprise! Tasting fresh cacao directly from the pod is on a list of life experiences that I hope to have before I die. I have seen and held a dried, whole cacao on a few occasions and I have tasted whole, roasted cacao beans but I have never seen a fresh, recently picked cacao pod. And it only cost 25 cents!
I took it back into the van with me pleased that I was finally going to get the chance to scratch that item off my list. My fellow passengers were all curious about the strange squash-like fruit I had purchased. I was so distracted by the thrill of it all that I forget to take pictures. The photos you see here were taken later in the day only minutes before the sun went down.
Later that afternoon I took the pod with me to the hotel restaurant and cut it open with a bread knife. This is what I found inside.
I’m not sure why — perhaps it is due to my love of chocolate — but I had always imagined the insides soft, luscious, and fragrant. I imagined that opening a cacao pod would be sort of like opening up a passionfruit; dry on the outside but with a fragrant and unusually sensual inside. Perhaps other cacao pods are like that, but mine was quite dry, the pulp stringy and alien-like. It did not look appetizing. It did not smell like much at all.
I pulled out a bean and we all had a taste. Raw cacao tastes incredibly acrid, bitter and entirely unpleasant, akin to chewing on a pink eraser For Big Mistakes. Having eaten roasted beans I can see how that acrid, bitter taste would be transformed by the proper processing; this process involves fermenting, drying and roasting the beans. Unfortunately I would never get a chance to see my pod through those stages because I was not allowed to bring any natural materials (plant matter, shells, rocks, sand, fauna, etc) back from our trip. In the end, raw cacao was not what I expected but I could care less about the outcome. It was an exciting experience and something I can scratch off The List!