Cocoa breaking

Before I even left Canada, Uncle Pete psyched me up for the cocoa breaking experience. In Bamenda, I learned all about the “life cycle” of a cocoa bean from tree to candy bar while helping Elsie prepare lessons for the FES chocolate unit. So it was with great excitement I received the summons: put on your bush clothes. Johannes has invited us to his cocoa breaking.

It was a gentle initiation. The path to the field took a mere 5 minutes to traverse, the pile of cocoa pods was not monstrous; and the machete-wielders were not too numerous.

Cocoa trees are not in straight rows or cleared plots; they grow randomly in the rainforest—planted, yes; belonging to a particular farmer, certainly; but orderly and dense the way farms at home are, no. Cocoa pods grow on trees, hanging down in the most random places, from both branch and trunk. They range in colour from deep purple, to bright yellow and orange, to green, to black. Okay, the black ones are found not so much on the tree as in the heap of cocoa pods in the clearing, about to be split. Which takes me to that part, I guess.

There is a large pile of cocoa pods—yellow, orange, red and all varieties of black. Workers bring pails or bags in which to put the beans, machetes (“cutlasses”) to chop the pods open, and spoons to scoop out the uncooperative pieces. Johannes cut down some big banana leaves to cover the ground where the split pods lay. The girls and I sat or knelt on these leaves or on the large plastic bags we’d brought for that purpose. Another group were breaking down by the river, so we white folk were the only scoopers at this location while Johannes and two other men chopped. Becky also chopped for a bit—skilfully it seemed to me—but cautiously, with a large kitchen knife and gloved hand, not wanting to repeat the experience of her first cocoa breaking when she sliced her hand open and caused great consternation among the ranks.

The choppers split the pods (average size 8 inches long) in half, sometimes also lopping off the heads of the pods, then toss the bits to the palm leaves where the scoopers pull the beans out into the bags and buckets. The shell of the pod is kind of like a pumpkin, but more brittle and less than ½ inch thick. The beans—about the size of your thumb from middle join to tip—are encased in a slimy white membrane and attached by fours to a spine through the middle of the pod. Very soon, the scooper’s hands are covered in cocoa juice, flecks of dirt, pieces of cocoa pod, pieces of membrane, and crawling with little bugs.

Many of the pods we were dealing with were completely black. The seeds were accordingly overripe; the membrane was brown or black, the beans darker underneath it all, and many were crawling with worms and bugs. Spoons were helping on the particularly gross pods and on stubborn pieces because digging with your fingers can result in slivers under your nails.

I believe it was the membrane which gave off a strange sweet, almost slightly fermented smell. I couldn’t decide whether it was nice or sickening. Then Johannes offered us (at the children’s urging) a nice yellow pod for sucking the membrane off the beans. At my first taste, I thought, it tastes just like it smells. But on the second try, I felt less ambivalent and more convinced that I liked the taste experience. Once you’ve sucked to your heart’s content, you spit the beans into the pot along with all the others. It is by no means a very hygienic process, but don’t worry—next the beans are dried, roasted…fermented at some point, I think…anyway, they’ll undergo a great deal of heating before they become chocolate. Believe it or not, at this point, the inside of the bean is purple!

Johannes had a large rattan pushcart to bring the beans back to the village so we just picked up our things and returned home once we finished, no need to trundle cases of beans home on our backs. Back at the house at the end of it all, Becky treated us to a glass of freshly-made sweet but subtle lemonade from the real live lemons a vendor brought by earlier in the week. For the rest of the day, I was haunted by the faint smell of cocoa juice coming off my hands.


Anonymous said…
That's fascinating! What an exciting opportunity, getting to participate in the cocoa process. I keep noticing in your stories what a different experience these girls are having, growing up in Cameroon instead of Canada. No wonder missionary kids often have a tough time adjusting to moving back to their parents' homelands.

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