Posted in Kafevend Blog
Around four thousand years ago, the Mesoamerican Olmecs were some of the first humans known to have used cacao beans. Back then, the preferred method of preparing cacao was as a drink. Cold, frothy and spicy, it was a far cry from the sweet and warm drinking chocolate we typically enjoy nowadays.
The modern day people of Colombia still prefer their chocolate as a drink like the many Central American civilizations of old, but they now prefer to heat it up and add a generous helping of sugar. A few traits of the old way still survive though: a spicy kick is still often added in the form of a stick of cinnamon whilst it is brewing, and the drink is frothed using a molinillo, a utensil first devised and used thousands of years ago.
Unlike the pre-sweetened cocoa powder you would normally use to make hot chocolate, Colombians prefer to use bars made using 100% ground cacao. These bars are considered a staple in the country in the same way coffee or tea is here. Along with this rich cocoa, Colombians use a type of sugar known as panela.
The process of making panela is a fairly simple but interesting one. First, the sugar cane is cut down and fed through a crusher, which separates the woody material from the cane juice. The juice is sluiced off into large metal vats and brought to the boil and reduced to a thick, golden brown syrup. The syrup is finally poured into a large wooden grid mould where it is left to cool and set into crystalline blocks. You wonder why people bother with all the processing that goes into the comparatively bland white sugar when you can get a perfectly tasty block of the stuff like this!
This method of processing sugar is not a feature of Central America alone however. In India and other parts of Asia and Africa, they make jaggery using cane juice as well as dates and palm sap. The process is similar, though jaggery is often moulded into conical shapes as opposed to blocks. Mexicans also produce a conical unrefined sugar block that they call piloncillo, meaning little pylon in reference to the shape.
There are several companies nowadays that make the rich cocoa and panela bars- one such company is Hasslachers. This Colombian business purchases cacao beans directly from farmers' cooperatives in Colombia, providing a higher price by cutting out the middle man. They also turn those beans into bars in the country itself instead of shipping them elsewhere, thereby providing jobs to the local people who enjoy their chocolate just as much as we do. They also work with sugar cane growers to make the sugary slabs of panela that go with the cocoa bars. You can find their cocoa and panela bars in selected stores here in the UK like Waitrose, Tesco and Marks and Spencers- why not give Colombian Cocoa a try?