Saturday, July 28, 2012

Costa Rica's "Romeria" to Cartago! Give thanks to the Virgin of Los Angeles!

Dia de La Virgin de Los Angeles
Well it's that time of year again....the end of July and as August 2nd quickly approaches, the "Romeria" of pilgrims can be seen walking, riding, cycling and including other ingenuous means of transporation along the Pan American Highway and along other main roads of Costa Rica that lead to the city of Cartago where they will participate in the annual celebration of the "Virgen de Los Angeles", this country's patron saint.

Legend proclaims that a young indigenous girl, Juanita Pereira, found the statue of the "Black Virgin" on Aug. 2, 1635, while gathering wood in the forest outside the city, which at the time was racially segregated. The young girl carried the unique
Replica of the Famous Statue
stone said to resemble the Virgin Mary with child in her arms to her home and locked it up. It is said that the small 6 inch stone image almost immediately disappeared, only to mysteriously return to its original spot on the rock in the woods where it was originally discovered. This happened not once, but numerous times, including after giving the stone to a local prominent priest, who then proclaimed it to be a miracle and so began it's high regard throughout the country! The legend lived on, and in 1824, "La Negrita", as the black Virgin image is referred, was officially bestowed as the patron saint by the Costa Rican government.

Today, this small statue rests on a golden and bejeweled platform above the altar at the Basílica Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles in Cartago, some 14 miles east of San José, which was purposely built around the rock where the small figure first appeared.

Millions on the Annual Trek to Cartago
This religious holiday is a unique experience for both nationals and visitors of Costa Rica, as they get to experience the true culture and dedication of the Ticos to their beloved Patron Saint. Pilgrims can travel up to 2 weeks to arrive to the Basilica in Cartago to get a firsthand look at the statue of "La Negrita", which means "little dark one" in Spanish, as that is the color of this beautiful stone figure. Local legend proclaims that a small stream with curing powers is situated in proximity of the Basilica, and this "holy water" is said to cure all forms of sickness and physical ailments, so many pilgrims will collect small amounts of this special water during their annual pilgrimage.

The many "Ticos" from all over the country that spend days and even weeks to make their way to the Basilica, upon arriving will climb the steps of the church on their
On bended Knee, some with Crosses
knees, some with their last ounce of strength, as a means of thanking La Negrita for favors, as well as to pray for help to overcome their sicknesses and/or physical and mental disabilities. Since there can be some 2+ million annual visitors, some pilgrims choose to pray by the stone where the image was originally found, as the surrounding areas of the Basilica can be overwhelmed with people seeking a look at the "La Negrita" statue.

An example of how popular this yearly event is, in 2003, 1.5 million people descended upon the city of Cartago for the dedication to "La Negrita". At that time that number represented close to 40 percent of Costa Rica's entire population!

What was once 1.5 million people, has grown over the years to attract some 2.5 million pilgrims, so with the passing of time, this yearly trek has not lost its following. In response to the incredible amounts of garbage generated by such a large number of
EARTH University going Eco!
people, EARTH University created the program "Eco Romería" starting in 2011. A press release from the Health Ministry said that more than 80,000 plastic bottles and 27 tons of organic material were collected last year. This year, garbage cans will be placed every 500 meters along the main routes leading to the Basílica, as well as the Red Cross will be available along these same main routes and at the church to attend to folks with dehydration, blisters and other side effects of the long arduous trek.
The Lumaca bus company has also committed some 270 buses to provide transportation from San José to the Basilica Church so visitors can enjoy the outdoor mass on August 2nd.

The Basilica was built in 1639 and was later partially destroyed by an earthquake. The restored Basilica offers an impressive mix of colonial architecture combined with 19th century Byzantine style and is consecrated to the Virgin of Señora de los Ángeles, it truly is an impressive church.

If you would like to see inside the Basilica on a normal day, just watch below:

Everyone is welcome to participate in the Romeria in Costa Rica. It is an excellent way to get to know the culture and the "Pura Vida" people of this country. The City of
The Adorned Virgin of Los Angeles
Cartago is beautiful to visit and the climate is cool and refreshing. The display area at the Basilica de Los Angeles is worth a stop to see the Virgin statue and the rock she was found on which in truth is actually a replica, as the original Virgin statue is now held at the Vatican. The replica statue, sanctified by the Pope, is kept at the Cartago Basilica and is now what the "romeros" will see upon arrival.

Don't forget the Holy Water!
Don't forget to bring a small container, so you can receive some free holy water that flows from a river that sits below the church and has been blessed by the Basilica's priest, its said to be the ultimate healer!

Feel free to report back to me if the holy water does in fact cure your sickness, physical or mental it never hurts to have a firsthand account that is was worth the long arduous trek! Pura vida!

To see how the Costa Ricans celebrate this holiday and decide if you would like to participate too, check out the following video:

Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Did you know that some of the first Chocolate Beans came from Costa Rica?

Ancient History:
The life story of Chocolate starts a little over 3000 years ago. While there are images on Mayan pottery dating back to 1000BC, most historians believe the cacao tree was first cultivated by the Olmecs, who lived in Central America, not far from Costa Rica. Research into their language has revealed the word cacao was used by this Mesoamerican civilization, dispelling the common misconception that the Mayans were the original founders of chocolate.
By 300 AD the Olmecs had vanished and the Mayan civilization was flourishing in the southern part of what is now Mexico. The Mayan civilization worshiped the sacred tree, naming it cacahuaquchtl, and believed the pods were a gift to man from the Gods. Writings that survive today describe the cacao as the gods’ food, and many drawings show cacao pods being used in rituals and ceremonies. After the demise of the Mayan civilization, the Toltecs occupied the same region; followed by the Aztecs who conquered the Toltecs in 1325. When the Aztecs discovered the cacao beans that the Toltecs worshiped and transformed into drink, they named the beans cacahuatl, meaning “sun beans”. Cacao beans were used primarily as currency and a beverage at
this time. The beans were so valuable, they were the only permitted form of payment of taxes levied by the Aztecs rulers.

Both the Aztecs and the Mayans concocted a foamy drink with the cacao, and spiced it with chili, allspice, honey or vanilla. The beverage was enjoyed mostly by the elite upper class as it was an expensive luxury. In 1502, cacao beans were first discovered by a European – Christopher Columbus. He was offered cacao beans in trade for goods of his own. His confusion over these “almonds” being used as currency led the chief of Guanja to prepare xocolatl for him, which he apparently found bitter and distasteful. While he did not initially realize the beans were edible, he did report that they were being used as a form of currency, and returned to Spain with some beans. When he presented his find to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, they were not pleased with the cocoa drink either, and thus Spain did not pursue the import of cacao beans for several decades.

Journey to Europe
In 1528 Cortes returned to Spain, bringing with him cacao beans and necessary equipment to produce Xoclatl for Charles V. Initial reactions to the dark, bitter
liquid were once again not positive, but with the addition of sugar cane and some spices such as cinnamon or vanilla, the drink began to gain acceptance with the royals and nobles. Adding to the development, the Spaniards created a tool called a molinillo which made whipping the chocolate in to the frothy beverage much easier increasing its popularity.

For the next 80 years Spain controlled the import of all cacao beans, and they began to cultivate them in other areas near the equator such as Costa Rica, Trinidad, Haiti, Mexico, Java and the Caribbean. Because growing and processing beans was very profitable for the Spanish colonists, they were careful to protect their knowledge of working with cacao. The processing of the beans was performed by Spanish monks in the colonies until 1580 when the first chocolate processing plant was set up in Spain.

Chocolate Becomes Vogue Throughout Europe
In the early 1600’s, chocolate began spreading across Europe, first to Holland then to Italy, Germany, Great Briton, France and Switzerland. As a result these empires began cultivating and producing chocolate in their own colonies. During this period in history, cocoa was known as a clerical fasting beverage, because the Catholic Church permitted consumption of cocoa during lent as a nutritional substitute. It was still believed to have medicinal and restorative properties, as well as to be an aphrodisiac.

Evolutionary Changes
The 1700s brought the evolution of chocolate processing with the invention of the steam engine, which made possible the grinding of the cocoa beans by machines. This allowed large quantities of beans to be processed with relatively little labor, causing a decrease in the price. Within 30 years the price of cocoa dropped so significantly that cocoa was available to nearly everyone.
Nearly 100 years later, the cocoa press was invented by the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten. The press allowed for even more economical prices on cocoa. It squeezed out cocoa butter, leaving the cocoa powder, which made cocoa both more consistent and less expensive to produce.
Chocolate was produced in the American colonies as early as 1765, when the first chocolate factory was built. Dr. James & John Hannon who joined together for one of the earliest machine-based chocolate manufacturing businesses. Using an old grist mill, they ground cacao beans into chocolate liquor and pressed the paste into cakes to be used for drinking chocolate. Their company was originally known as Hannon's Best Chocolate. When Hannon was lost at sea during a cacao-buying voyage to the West Indies, the company was renamed the Baker Company (Baker’s Chocolate) and remained in the Baker family until it was bought out by General Foods in 1927.

Making things Easier to Eat
In 1847 the first solid chocolate bar was created. It was made by combining some of the melted cocoa butter with cocoa powder and sugar, creating a paste that could be pressed into a mold. The chocolate bar was so popular that people soon began to think of eating chocolate as much as drinking it.
In 1876, Daniel Peter of Switzerland was attempting to devise a way of adding milk to chocolate, but couldn’t create a mixture that would combine smoothly. At the same time, Henri Nestlé was working on a concentrated infant food formula, which required him to find a way to treat milk so that it would not spoil while in storage. He invented powdered milk, which turned out to be the perfect milk form for Peter's purposes; the low water content made it possible to mix it with the chocolate into a bar that did not spoil. By 1879, the two men had joined to form Nestle.
In 1879, Rudolphe Lindt invented a process called "conching," which drastically improved the texture of chocolate by making it more blendable early in the processing. This machine was made of a shell-shaped granite bed, and had rollers that moved back and forth grinding the chocolate liquor, sugar and (if used) milk into a paste that was the smoothest ever created. Soon, conching was adopted as a standard part of the chocolate-making process. Originally, the friction of the rollers heated the paste as they ground it, which served as preliminary roasting. Because of the importance of the roasting process, today’s conching machine rollers are cooled so that the roasting time can be controlled with precision.
The 1900’s saw the creation of Hershey’s chocolate bars (1893), filled bonbons (1913), Perugina and Valrhona chocolate companies (1922), Godiva Belgian chocolates (1926), Toll House cookies (1930) and army “D-Rations” (1941). Chocolate is now eaten by children and adults all over the world, and comes in many flavors, styles and packages. It continues to evolve with the proliferation of vintages and “single origin” chocolates at the beginning of this millennium.

Initial Production Time
When it is time to harvest, the pods are cut from the tree trunk by hand using a machete. For pods higher up on the tree, a long handle with a small curved blade is used to gently separate them from the trunk. Care must be taken not to damage the other pods or flowers on the tree, as the tree is frail and its roots are shallow. The pods are collected in baskets and brought to a central location. Within a week, all pods are split open, often with a wooden club to avoid damaging the beans inside the pod, and the contents removed. The pods will usually yield 40-60 beans each, depending on the variety of the cacao. When dry, it will take approximately 400 beans to make one pound of roasted beans.

Beans and surrounding white pulp are removed from the pod and piled high, to promote fermentation. Fermenting piles are often covered with banana leaves and stirred periodically to promote aeration and fermentation. After a day, micro-organisms, in particular yeasts, begin to grow on the beans. The yeast converts the sugar of the pulp into ethanol, and the bacteria then oxidizes the ethanol, causing the temperature of the pile to rise and the beans to turn brown. By the second day the pulp begins to break down into a liquid and drain away. At this point, the bean has died from the heat and the oxidization. Bacteria continues the process of oxidation as more and more air fills the spaces previously occupied by the pulp. The death of the bean causes cell walls to break down and different parts of the bean to merge together. These newly combined substances cause chemical reactions which enhance the color and flavor characteristics in the bean. The entire fermentation process for Criollo beans is 2-3 days, and for Forastero usually 5 days.

When fermentation is complete, the beans have a moisture content of 60% which is much too high- drying will reduce that to 7.5%. Drying is done traditionally by spreading the beans out on the ground or a table and allowing the sun to do the work. More modern techniques include drying rooms and heated tables where temperatures can be strictly controlled. The beans should be dried slowly to allow completion of the chemical reactions that began in fermentation, but not so slowly that moulds develop. During the drying process, the beans are continually turned to help prevent mold and provide sufficient aeration. Once the beans are dried, which usually takes one to two weeks, they are scooped into bags and from there the beans go to the chocolate manufacturers.

Quality Checks
The cacao undergoes quality tests at several stages along its journey. The first stop after drying is when the plantation sorts the beans according to size. Only the premium beans command top pricing in the market. The local co-ops and plantations sell to brokers in London, Amsterdam and New York, who then act as middlemen selling to the manufacturers and chocolate companies. The beans are tested usually by sampling 300 beans per metric ton. The sample is weighed and the beans are cut open to reveal any mold or pests and to determine the extent of the fermentation. Every company has standards that define the tolerances for defective beans in a lot. As a final test, the liquors are tasted by a professional panel who evaluates the aromas and flavors of the beans.

Transformation at the Chocolate Maker
Once the beans are ready to be processed, it takes at least 2 to 4 days to manufacture a single candy bar. Though processes may differ from maker to maker, the overall process is common to most. Because each maker blends beans to his unique specifications, makers segregate their beans by type and origin. When they are ready to process, the cocoa beans are cleaned to remove any debris or dried pulp that may remain, and then they are graded and sorted by size. Any shriveled or double beans are discarded.

Next the beans are roasted in large rotating cylinders to bring out the chocolate flavor and color. The roasting can take 30 to 120 minutes, usually at 250 degrees or higher. This is a critical step where chocolate makers add their own signature to the process, by varying the temperature, moisture and time the beans are roasted. The longer the roasting the stronger the flavor, but over-roasting will rune the bean and make it bitter.

Once roasting is complete, the beans are put into a winnowing machine where they are passed between two large cones that crack the brittle shells without crushing the nibs. A fan inside blows and separates the hard outer shell from the cocoa nib. As a part of this process, the winnowing machine sifts through the nibs and separates them by size.

Grinding Machine
Once sorted, the nibs are crushed by large steel discs or grinding stones. The heat generated by the friction melts the cocoa butter which becomes cocoa liquor (cocoa particles suspended in cocoa butter). The cocoa particles at this point are approximately 50-70 microns in size, which is still detected as grainy on the tongue. This liquor if solidified would be pure unsweetened chocolate. The temperature and degree of milling varies according to the type of nib used and the product required.
Some liquor will be used for purposes other than eating chocolate. For this portion, the cocoa liquor is pressed at 6,000 pounds per square inch to extract the cocoa butter, producing a residual solid mass called cocoa presscake. The extracted cocoa butter is used in the manufacture of eating chocolate, while the cocoa presscake is ground finely to form cocoa powder. For the liquor that will go on to become chocolate, the addition of cocoa butter will be the next step. Other ingredients such as sugar, milk and emulsifying agents such as lecithin, are also added and mixed. The amount of cocoa butter depends on the type of chocolate being made. The cocoa butter and cacao solids together make up the coco percentage that is now being emblazoned on many labels. The higher cocoa percent in the finished chocolate, the more intense the flavor will be and the lower the sugar content.

Mixing of Liquor and Other Ingredients
The chocolate mixture is then put through a refining process, traveling through a series of huge steel rollers until a smooth paste is formed. The size of the chocolate particles is reduced to 14-20 microns at this stage, which greatly improves the mouth-feel of the final chocolate. The substance that comes out of this mixing process is surprisingly dry and powdery.

The next process, conching, further develops the flavor and texture by promoting chemical transformations in the chocolate. This process was developed first by Rodolphe Lindt around the turn of the century. Conching is a process of kneading and agitating the chocolate, which can be completed in as little as 5 hours at the more commercial facilities, but can take as long as 3 days at the more artisan manufacturers. During this process, cocoa butter is sometimes added to further enhance the smoothness of the end result. The speed, duration and temperature of the kneading also affect the flavor affect the chocolate in ways not fully understood.

As a final stage before molding, the mixture is tempered by a series of heating, cooling and reheating steps. This prevents chocolate bloom by realigning the cacao butter crystal formations. The chocolate is now ready to be molded as a whole bar or used to enrobe fillings.

How to make Chocolate:

Costa Rica Chocolate History:

The decade of 1950's
Costa Rican Cocoa Products began with the clear mission to industrialize the national of cocoa beans in Costa Rica. In order to make this happen the founders acquired the Harrick's company with its products and chocolate drinks naming it The Costa Rican Cocoa Products. The production of cocoa powder begins, as well as the making of chocolate coating for the industry. Also the first exports of cocoa butter are sent to Colombia and the United States.

The decade of 1960's
For the 1960's the company mission was: "To expand operations to Central America." In order to reach this goal they built bigger and more modern plant in Zapote where they could start the chocolate bar production. They expanded their distribution by opening distribution facilities in different countries of Central America.

The decade of 1970's
The mission for the 1970's was key to the development of the company since it was defined as "Product diversification and vertical integration." For this, the Ruiz family acquired cocoa farms from which they could produce their own chocolate. Later they realized that it was more profitable to import the raw materials. Then in 1977, the distributor company, Diasa was founded. This was a major breakthrough since they were able to develop their own sales force and distribute the product all over the country. Also during the seventies, as sales increased the owners saw the need for the automation of the line of "chocolates bañados", and bought new machinery to start manufacturing the Perugina candy.

The decade of 1990's
In the second half of the 1990's there was a shift in the vision of the company. The Nestle Company which had acquired Perugina of Italy in 1988, made an offer to buy the plant that Costa Rican Cocoa had in Heredia along with its consumer market product-line. The Ruiz family saw this as a great opportunity to concentrate their efforts in cocoa based products at an industrial level.On December of that same year, the Nestle Company acquired the brand names of Harrick's and Perugina, along with the machinery for their production.The Costa Rican Cocoa Products vision for the second half of the decade is to diversify their industrial product-line in order to continue to fulfill the needs and wants of the national industry and penetrates other foreign markets at competitive levels on the basis of quality and price.The company currently exports its products to all of Central America, the United States, Mexico and Sweden.

The plant and its facilities are located in Zapote in the outskirts of San José, the capital of Costa Rica. The population of San José is around 2.000.000, where the total population of the country is approximately 4 million. The climate of the region is quite mild where in the summer is warmer and in the winter there are sunny mornings and rainy afternoons, so this works well for the manufacturing of chocolate.

Costa Rican Cocoa Co. S.A
In from Multiplaza del Este, Zapote, San José, Costa Rica
(506) 2225-2611 - phone
(506) 2225-7432 - fax

Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.