A Beverage with a Past
A family-owned cacao and tropical fruit farm educates visitors with a timeless treat.
Mary Clay Kline
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Nearly every restaurant in America has a chocolate dessert on its menu. Parents set out plates of chocolate chip cookies for after-school snacks, and chocolate candies fly off convenience store shelves. It is easy to forget that chocolate had another life before chocolate mousse and Snickers bars.
In reality, chocolate in its familiar form has only existed for about 4,000 years.
According to the laws of nature, the cacao tree appears dangerous. The plant sheds its leaves often, and they grow back bright red, warning animals to stay away. The cacao fruit, which produces the beans from which chocolate is made, is sunny yellow.
Because of these colors, which act as warning signs as well as natural defense mechanisms, humans shied away from the plant for centuries. When they began to see monkeys snacking on the sweet, white, gummy flesh that encased the cacao beans—and surviving afterward—they assumed the plant was safe to eat.
After years of archaic recipe development, humans began to ferment, dry, roast and grind cacao beans. They mixed this ground cacao with water and consumed “the drink of the gods,” xocolatl, as they called it. It would be centuries before sugar was added to the drink to create the hot cocoa that has become so recognizable.
Left: Cacao pods are brightly colored and warn predators to stay away. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Center: Cacao beans are encased in a sweet, spongy fruit that some say tastes like cotton candy or ice cream. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Right: The owners of Don Olivo compost used cacao pods to use as fertilizer. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Don Olivo is an honest participant in the Costa Rican tourism game. The trees on the cacao plantation produce one ton of chocolate, all of which is distributed within the tours. The farm tour also includes tastes of their homegrown fruits and a lesson in chocolate production.
The Muvillo family’s passion for growing is not solely based in tourism, though. The family also continues to manage the farm because of the drive Muvillo’s grandfather instilled in them.
“My grandfather was the one who gave us the passion,” Muvillo said. “Even my father was telling him, ‘Why are you planting so many trees? We don’t even have enough space for our cows.’ And he said, ‘Listen, planting things is one of the best things you can do because in bad days at least you have something to eat.”
Ben and Mary Poirier own an acre of land near San Diego, California, where they grow all sorts of uncommon fruits like star fruit and surinam cherries. The couple decided to visit Don Olivo to familiarize themselves with something they have had trouble growing: chocolate.
“The problem with our property is that it’s Southern California,” Mary Poirier said. “It’s not tropical. So it’s not that we haven’t grown cacao. We have, but it was in the greenhouse, and anyway, they usually eventually die.”
Don Olivo, on the other hand, is located near the equator, where efforts to grow cacao are heartily rewarded.
A tour at Don Olivo ends with a hot chocolate preparation demonstration and tasting, which revisits the notion of a drink consumed by humans hundreds of centuries prior. Muvillo provides an array of supplements—cayenne pepper, turbinado sugar and homemade vanilla extract—that guests can stir into their hot chocolate. The beverage is welcome despite the sticky-hot climate.
“You live longer if you drink chocolate,” Muvillo said while visitors sipped from their steaming cups. “It’s good for blood pressure, it’s good for heart problems, and it’s good for broken hearts.”
"It’s good for blood pressure, it’s good for heart problems, and it's good for broken hearts."
Mauricio Muvillo of Don Olivo Chocolate Tours located outside of La Fortuna, Costa Rica, tells a version of this story daily. Muvillo makes it clear how important chocolate is to Costa Ricans.
“[In] Costa Rica, if you arrive to [someone’s] house, and they like you, they are inviting you to a cup of hot chocolate,” he said. “If they didn’t like you, they used to give you a glass of water.”
Along with his father and brother, Muvillo maintains 15 acres of farmland that his grandfather first cultivated. There are tropical fruit plants, including soursop and star apple, scattered about the property, as well as a plantation of 1,200 cacao plants and papaya as far as the eye can see. Everything on the property is grown without synthetic pesticides.