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Pods on a cacao tree at La Anita rain forest cacao ranch.
Pods on a cacao tree at La Anita rain forest cacao ranch.Sena Desai Gopal for The Boston Globe

LA ANITA, Costa Rica — La Anita reveals itself slowly. It is dark when we arrive at the rain forest cacao ranch tucked in virgin jungles 300 kilometers west of the capital, San Jose. We eat dinner in a wood-framed main house, a meal of omelet, fresh trout, green salad, pickled jalapenos and culantro pesto, made with herbs similar to cilantro. Dessert is a plate of coconut bonbons sprinkled with cacao nibs. It’s a hint of what’s to come on a ranch that produces chocolate for gourmands and food snobs around the world.

The next morning rain hammers on the roof of our wood cabin, hours before the sun is out. Daylight creeps in the window, a vibrant color collage. La Anita really comes to life over breakfast of gallo-pinto, which is black beans cooked with rice, garlic, and herbs, scrambled eggs, and pancakes (sprinkled with cacao nibs, of course) served in the open dining room. The sun shines over lush mountains, a clear-blue lake, brilliantly hued flowers, and the cacao trees scattered across the property.

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Pablo Cespedes, 52, who owns La Anita with his wife, Ana Perez de Cespedes, 46, begins the chocolate tour after breakfast.

La Anita chocolate is sweet, smooth, with a distinct earthy, nutty flavor. The bars have been produced ethically using adult, skilled employees and not forced child labor that work most African cacao plantations. There is something soul-satisfying knowing no child has been exploited to make this bar of chocolate. In the industry, ethically produced chocolate is unusual as most mass-produced, commercial chocolate-makers aren’t discerning about where they source their cacao.

Chocolate from farms employing child labor is often bitter and there is a scientific reason for it. A mature cacao pod has about 29 seeds, each smothered in soft, sweet pulp. The first step in chocolate-making is the fermentation of the pulp-covered beans in wooden boxes covered with banana leaves. As the pulp sugars break down they produce heat, which prevents cacao bean-germination. If the beans germinate the chocolate becomes bitter. African cacao plantations often employ poor children who suck the pulp because they are hungry, before fermentation, causing the beans to germinate and making the chocolate bitter, says Pablo Cespedes.

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“Bitter chocolate is not synonymous with high quality,” Pablo Cespedes says. “In fact, the opposite is true.”

The Cespedeses were not expecting to make chocolate when they took over the ranch from Ana’s parents in 2002. At the time it was a macadamia farm in financial trouble. Costa Rican weather is not kind to macadamia nuts, which are native to Australia, and the Cespedeses decided to try growing different varieties of palm. They also planted a few cacao criollo trees — the cacao variety grown widely in Costa Rica. Within a few years the couple noticed the criollo trees were thriving; they decided to plant more and go into cacao farming full time. La Anita now has over 8,000 trees on its 50-acre property.

The couple initially planned on selling roasted cacao beans and nibs (shelled and crushed beans) to chocolatiers. Then, one day, as Pablo Cespedes was waiting for a German client who was running late, he asked one of his staff, Carlos Orozco, to pan-roast some cacao beans. The two men then peeled the beans and blended them with milk and sugar. That was the first cup of chocolate milk made at La Anita; it was delicious enough that the idea of making their own chocolate took hold.

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“Most chocolatiers did not know what to do with the cacao nibs,” Pablo Cespedes says. “So we decided to make the chocolate ourselves.”

La Anita initially gave only chocolate tours, but expanded its hospitality when guests expressed an interest in staying on at the ranch after their tour. There are now 13 cabins and a large main house with a dining area, where meals are served at set times using local ingredients.

Pablo and Ana Cespedes graduated from EARTH University, Costa Rica, where students from rain forest countries go through a rigorous four-year-program in sustainable agriculture. The goal is for the graduates to return to their home countries and use what they have learned to revive their communities.

The Cespedeses have done exactly that, though since they came from Costa Rica, they stayed there. Their employees, small farmers growing corn, spices, culantro, fruit, and ginger, are from the nearby village of Colonia Liberted. There are few career opportunities here and La Anita provides employment to one-third of Colonia Liberted.

“We are eco-friendly but we will save the community at all costs,” Pablo Cespedes says, cutting open a cacao pod to reveal the purplish beans nestled in translucent white pulp. “The community depends on us for their livelihoods and we can’t let them down.” He scoops out the pulp-covered beans, tossing them in balsa wood-boxes, about 175 pounds in each, then covers them with banana leaves. Fermentation takes eight days, after which the beans are dried and roasted.

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“There is only one way of roasting cacao beans right,” Pablo Cespedes says. “You cannot burn them, then sell as bitter chocolate.”

It took years for Pablo Cespedes and his staff to determine the perfect way to roast cacao beans — at a temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit, at which the cacao fat is preserved. Overheating denatures the fat, making the chocolate bitter. Cacao fat is “good” fat, Cespedes says, and easily digestible. Chocolate also has other health benefits — it is rich in antioxidants, minerals, and the feel-good chemical dopamine, and has 10 percent as much caffeine as coffee does. “Healthy isn’t a punishment, healthy can be gourmet,” says Cespedes. His chocolate has up to 80 percent cacao.

He hands our tour group roasted cacao beans and demonstrates how to separate the thin shell from the hard inside by rubbing the shells between the fingers. He blows away the shell and crushes the bean into cacao nibs. Contrary to expectation, the cacao nibs are not even slightly bitter — they are creamy, slightly sweet, and bursting with flavor. Cespedes then takes a handful of shelled beans from a mechanical air crusher and blends them with milk, sugar, vanilla, and a pinch of red chile powder. He hands us each a cup of the thick reddish-brown liquid.

Native tribes 4,000 years ago in the Amazon drank chocolate in this form. In fact, the word “chocolate” originates from “xocolatl” in the Nahuatl language spoken by Mexican cultures including the Aztecs, Toltecs, and even the Mayans. “Xoco” means foam and “Atl” means water and it is only in the last few centuries that chocolate evolved into a bar.

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The Cespedeses supply cacao beans and nibs to chocolatiers worldwide, among them CJay Tea & Co. in Toronto and Crio and Co. in Germany. They are in the process of opening a distribution business for their bonbons in New Orleans.

Ana Cespedes says they want to grow only in terms of improving the quality of their chocolate. “We want contact with our clients, to get to know them,” she says. “We don’t want to grow beyond a certain limit and compromise quality.”

They have no plans to increase the number of cabins or provide modern-day hotel conveniences, like swimming pools. The idea is maintaining a rustic, clean, and simple lifestyle conducive to the production of the purest, best chocolate.

So, I leave La Anita having fully discovered chocolate. It is not just its heavenly taste or its creaminess and rich brown color that make this chocolate special. It is also that each piece of chocolate produced at La Anita revives the local community with the least negative impact on the environment or to its population.

What could be sweeter than that?


Sena Desai Gopal can be reached at sena_desai@yahoo.com.