On Wednesday the 6th of August the group woke to a rude announcement: the road we were going to take to our day activity in Huayapan, was blocked. By the Teacher´s Union. By now, this Union has taken up epic proportions in our collective mind, as they always seem to be protesting against something. Later, we would hear that they are not taken seriously anyhow anymore.
Anyway, this of course couldn´t kill the fun.
Today´s program involved a cacao and chocolate workshop done by a chocolate and cacao collective in the town of Huayapan, just one (ok, maybe a little more than one) hill away from Oaxaca City. After this bumpy ride we reached the house of Eddie and Arilla (sp), and were welcomed with open arms. The pair had just moved into this house after their wedding last week, so everything was still new. We started the day with a round of introduction in various levels of Spanish and English, and afterwards the goal of the day was explained. Eddie said that not only would we be able to create cacao and in effect, chocolate, we could also find effective ways to organise ourselves in a way that would work best for the day. This started immediately, as we had to form two teams for the two batches of cacao beans. We each got about 3 kilos, that first had to be sorted out. During this process, the cooperative told us something about how they formed and the choice for cacao as their product. After sorting, the beans needed to be washed, and then we laid them out to dry in the sun. Because multitasking was also a skill that needed to be trained, Eddie and Arilla and the other girl were talking all the time, about the importance of chocolate or how the steps were perfected by earlier generations.
While the beans laid to dry, the cooperative settled us again on the mats of that morning, and they talked about the history of cacao and how the bitter water, as it was first intended, was first transported to Europe and consequently introduced to sugar, making it hard to find the original purpose and taste of the xocaltl in the current chocolate on the market. One of the aims of the cooperative therefore is also to relearn to enjoy chocolate without the huge amounts of refined sugar. Apperantly, the average chocolate producer in Oaxaca uses 3 kilos of sugar for every kilo of cacao. The market right now is controlled by one huge company, which is also why the cooperative was formed: they want to return chocolate and cacao to their ancient forefathers and find a way to sustain themselves in this traditional way.
Then, the beans were dry, and the fun could start. We had to somehow get a stove burning – this is more difficult than it looks – and on top of it was a clay plate, covered in limestone to add calcium to the beans. Next, we had to roast the beans into perfection, when we would be able to peel of the shell quite easily. This proved to be a very delicate matter, as the beans needed to be moved around continuously, the fire had to be taken care of, and the beans couldn´t burn. Teamwork got a new face as you stood around the stove with 5 people all doing something else while really, really hot. Because fire is hot.
After the roasting, the beans are ground into the fine powder that is cacao. Of course, this is done the Mexican way: enjoying some mezcal and dancing to the background music. This was when the fun starts, as we got to make our hands dirty quite literally and explore the different ways to make the cacao powder into solid pieces of chocolate. What was interesting, is that we could not use any milk or water to bind the cacao. There were several methods:
– With honey: with pure and honestly created honey, you just add it to the cacao powder and mix it with your hands. The warmth of your hands works very well on the powder making it solid and the honey binds it togehter quite effeciently too. This method was very, very, sticky though.
– With brown sugar: brown sugar is the sugar that has only seen two refinary processes. You take about a quarter cup of sugar for a full cup of cacao. You have to grind it about two extra times and then it becomes so refined you can basically knead it into any shape you want. Again, the warmth of your hands does a lot for this. It´s strange because the cacao excretes this weird oily substance that feels very weird.
– With refined sugar: this is the sugar you and I buy at the market, very refined, and put through a lot of processes. The measurments and the way of using is about the same as with brown sugar.
After preparing the mixture of cacao and sugary substance, you could add some coconut, amerrillo (sp, some kind of cereal), cinnamon or vanilla, and knead it into any shape you liked.
After having fun with this process s}fr some time and looking at the experts who, let´s face it, were much better than us, cleaning needed to happen. We could also enjoy some of the hot chocolate drink that the cooperative mainly produces, which was really good. After everything was cleaned up we went next door for lunch, where some people tried to make the tortillas themselves (emphasis on tried), and we also had a very Oaxacan drink, with chocolate and corn (the opinions differ on this.).
At this point, it was already time to go. The cooperative very kindly provided us with some cacao to take home, to use in our houses. We shared our experiences of the day and came to a conclusion before boarding the bus.
Overall, this was one of those days were you just can´t do anything else than enjoy yourself. The manual labouyr was a nice alternative for the lectures and the stories the members of the cooperative shared were really nice to listen too. I think we all got the sense that in such a little thing as creating the chocolate you consume yourself, gives this liberating and free option of not buying – and never knowing which hands touched your food. Not because they might not be clean or anything, but becasue they were slaves maybe or they didn´t get paid enough. The Cooperative is really something that should be encouraged in the area: going back to your roots has never been so effective. Making chocolate, after all, is an act of resistance, as the creators set themselves off to the major corparation who have claimed the right to this traditional food in Mexico.
Well, resistance has never tasted so good.