Heat explodes in the mouth: he laughs as understanding dawns over a visitor’s face when she recognizes that what she is tasting is a humble peppercorn.
A flame on the tongue, tingling, then numbing: he explains that the stem we’re chewing contains lidocaine and was used by indigenous people for pain treatment.
The nutty, oven-fired flavor and texture that start as a dry, unfamiliar crunch but then all of a sudden transport the group to cakes and mousses and pastries: he smiles, having revealed to us another step in the process of turning cacao into chocolate.
Don Gerardo Solorzano says he grew up loving plants and their alchemy, the way they can shape-shift with a little heat. A leaf rubbed between the fingers, roots and stems boiled for teas and poultices. He walks his visitors along that line, enjoying their confusion and surprise, slicing off bits of this or that, shedding samples and bits of history, insights he pulls from the trees and plants as if they were pages of a history book. For us, though, without Gerardo, the plants would have been mute. This would have been just a forest.
Along with his wife, Runia Cerdas—who quenches the heat of the afternoon by serving visitors ice-cold, homemade, home-grown chocolate milk that is the stuff of dreams—and their son, Warner, Gerardo now specializes in stoking fires that transform cacao to chocolate. He is the alchemist who transforms the juicy insides of the ruby-red fruits into brittle nibs, those brittle nibs into ribbons of shiny paste. He is a cacao farmer, a chocolate manufacturer, a tourism entrepreneur.
But he is also, irrepressibly, a teacher. A professor of plants. A sort of instant, imagined grandfather who pulls us into a world where something as simple as a leaf can be a source of delight. Where anything can be possible. He believes it himself, ever since the fire came for him deep in his joints, illness and pain. “I couldn’t walk more than 100 meters,” he says, but plants cured him. Eucalyptus, bitter lemon, other mysterious things some lady plucked for him from the forest.
“Try this,” he says, over and over. A group stands, tasting, wondering, sensing a hint of something that, when boiled, fried, warmed, would be utterly familiar. Then a taste bud ignites, like a match struck in the darkness. “Aha!”
Illustrative photos of cacao processes by Mónica Quesada Cordero. Text by Katherine Stanley Obando, inspired by a tour at Tree Chocolate in Bijagua, Alajuela (check out their website or Facebook page, or contact them for reservations via WhatsApp, 8629-5537). Our weekly Media Naranja series captures stories of love and affection with a Costa Rican twist. During our April edition, “The trailblazers,” we are focusing it on pilot members of our national rural tourism platform, Directory 506, and showcasing their love for the earth, air, water, and fire.