Back safely in the U.S., I removed the cacao ball from my running shoe. I unwound the plastic wrap from the dark brown orb and sniffed it. My best friend, Mycah, and his wife, Ashley, had picked it up at a cacao farm in Baracoa, a small town on the eastern tip of Cuba, farther east still than Guantanamo Bay. When I met them in Santa Clara they’d presented me with the cacao and a glass of fresh guava juice. This was the good shit. I pictured myself shaving it over ice cream to impress a date or using it to flavor chili. Oh, this chocolate here? I got it from a guy in Cuba.
MORE GP CUBA COVERAGE: Dispatches from Cuba: A Trip Through Photos and Words | Trekking Cuba with the GORUCK GR2 | Kit: Cuba
Excited by my bounty and wanting to make the best use of it, I pulled some strings and arranged a meeting with François Payard. Payard is pastry royalty: He came up through top restaurants in France in the ’80s, came to New York to make pastry at Le Bernardin and Restaurant Daniel in the ’90s, won the James Beard Award for “Pastry Chef of the Year”, and opened a collection of bistros and cafes around the world, including FPB, a casual bakery in downtown New York.
That’s where we met. It was raining hard outside, one of the last cold days of spring. I had the cacao ball in my pocket. I liked transporting it, always in a baggie, showing it to people. Payard was in the kitchen, moving around with purpose. He has wild eyes and boundless energy. His French accent is exactly what you want it to be, and he begins sentences in English with “Alors”. I produced the ball. Payard looked at it, put it right to his nose, sniffed it deeply.
“It smells like p*ssy almost”, he said.
The cacao hadn’t picked up the smells from my coat pocket or running shoe, thankfully. Payard explained in more refined terms that it smelled astringent, likely a result of an ill-managed fermentation. Making chocolate involves several steps. First, the beans and and pulp are scooped from the fruit; then they’re covered and left to ferment for a few days; this is followed by a period of time in the sun to dry. The beans can then be shelled and ground into a paste consisting mostly of cacao mass and some cocoa butter, which will eventually be refined and combined with other ingredients to make the chocolate we buy in stores.
At the paste (also called “liquor”) stage, the cacao is essentially a raw food, the type that might be used in vegan restaurants or eaten in cacao-rich countries. In fact, one of Payard’s cooks, from Cote d’Ivoire, the largest producer of cacao beans, tasted what I’d brought home and confirmed that it was commonly eaten this way in his home country. The unrefined cacao is not sweet and luxurious like a bar of chocolate; the upside is that it’s very healthy, filled with flavonoids and low in saturated fat and sugar.
I had the cacao ball in my pocket. I liked transporting it, always in a baggie, showing it to people
So I had a ball of bitter cacao paste, and it hadn’t been fermented properly. Worse yet, there wasn’t enough of it to make very much. I considered filing a complaint with the U.S. Interests Section, located at the Swiss embassy in Havana. But Payard, a man of action, wasn’t troubled. The cacao was still usable, and we would make chocolat chaud, hot chocolate — a pure expression of the ingredient — with the addition of some of his Guittard chocolate. Unlike most of the hot chocolate we drink in the States, this version (recipe below) is like liquid velvet because it’s cooked for several minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. “You see, it’s very thick”, Payard said. “That’s what you should expect with very good hot chocolate”.
The combination of milk, cream, vanilla and chocolate made excellent hot chocolate, indeed, but it did have little fragments of shell and other solids from my cacao. Making this recipe with high-quality store bought chocolate like Guittard or Valhrona is probably the easiest method, but should you come across a ball of cacao paste in your travels, use it. Just strain it before serving. And don’t let anyone sniff it.
What I brought back from Cuba may not have been the best cacao or even the right chocolate for the job, but it was worth much more than the few pesos it cost: it was a gift from a friend, a good story, a chance to meet a legendary pastry chef and, maybe in a tiny way, the size of a cacao nib, a bridge between two countries at odds for many decades. Can you say the same about cigars and rum? I wouldn’t know. I didn’t bring any of those back…
Chocolat Chaud (Hot Chocolate)
You can turn the hot chocolate into a refreshing cold chocolate for summer with a few simple changes. Follow the procedure for hot chocolate exactly, but substitute the milk and cream for something with less fat — skim milk, for example, or even soy milk. Make the hot chocolate and pour it over ice. Always make it like this instead of refrigerating it, which will cause the fats in the liquid to coagulate and the drink to become too thick. Be sure to casually remind everyone that the chocolate is from Baracoa.
4 cups whole milk
4 cups heavy cream
500g chocolate (64% dark)
1 pod vanilla beans
Bring milk and cream to a boil. Add chocolate and stir until melted. Cook for about five minutes, stirring. Toward the end, scrape vanilla beans from the pod and add (including the pod) to the mixture. Allow to infuse.
Note: This recipe was adapted from the FPB recipe, which called for 3 liters of whole milk, 3 liters of heavy cream, 1,500g of chocolate and 2 pods of vanilla beans.