By JAMES TABABA
Cacao, often referred to as the “food of the gods,” has a rich history in the Philippines, with its cultivation dating back centuries. This tropical country boasts a climate and soil conditions ideal for growing high-quality cacao beans. In recent years, the cacao industry in the Philippines has been experiencing a remarkable resurgence, thanks to passionate individuals like Conrado Soriano. As a cacao farmer and owner of Royal Cocoa Farm in Mangaldan, Pangasinan, Conrado has become a driving force in promoting cacao farming, making significant contributions to the growth and development of the cacao industry.
In this article, Conrado shares the process on how tablea, a traditional Filipino cocoa product, is made. Tablea, known for its rich and distinct flavor, is made from locally-grown cacao beans that undergo a unique process of fermentation, drying, roasting, and grinding.
Tablea is cherished in the Philippines as a cultural and culinary heritage. It is often used to make a popular Filipino hot chocolate beverage called sikwate. Aside from being used for hot chocolate, tablea can also be used in various recipes and desserts. It can be incorporated into baked goods, such as cakes and brownies, or used as an ingredient in traditional Filipino dishes like champorado.
Harvesting cacao pods
Cacao trees generally require five years to bear fruits and flowers. However, if grafted, this timeline can be reduced to two years. When it comes to harvesting, the ideal time is when the cacao pods reach approximately 70% ripeness. All cacao pods, regardless of their color (green or red), will turn yellow during the ripening process.
Holding the harvested fruit
After picking the cacao pods, they should be held for a week before further processing. During this period, the fruits are stored in a cool, dry, and well-ventilated space for 1-3 days, allowing them to undergo natural maturation.
Extracting cacao beans from the pod
The next step is to extract the cacao beans (which are actually the seeds) from within the pod. This process involves carefully opening the pod without damaging the beans inside. Once the pod is opened, the cacao beans, typically surrounded by a sweet and sticky pulp, are exposed. The beans are gently scooped out from the pod using a spoon, spatula, or even bare hands.
To develop the distinct chocolate flavor and aroma in cacao beans, fermentation is a crucial step. Usually, plastic containers were used for this process. However, nowadays, stainless steel fermentation boxes are used. The cacao seeds are placed inside the fermentation box and left to ferment for 6-7 days. The heat generated during fermentation aids in the development of the desired chocolate taste.
Drying the cacao beans
After fermentation, the cacao beans need to be dried. This stage is essential for reducing their moisture content and preparing the beans for storage. The drying process typically takes place over 6-7 days under the sun.
Storage and batch management
Proper storage is crucial to maintain the quality of cacao beans. Following the “first in, first out” system ensures that the oldest batch of beans is used first for subsequent processing steps. The first batch of cacao beans will undergo roasting and winnowing, making it imperative to manage the inventory carefully.
Winnowing is the process of cracking the dried cacao beans to remove the seed coat or husk. This step is essential to obtain the nibs, which are the pure cacao fragments used in tablea production. The dried cacao beans are broken into smaller pieces, either manually or using machinery. This step helps to loosen the husks from the nibs. Then, the mixture of broken beans, husks, and nibs is subjected to air currents, such as by using a fan or specialized equipment. The air currents cause the lighter husks to be blown away, while the heavier nibs fall down and are collected.
Roasting the Cacao Nibs
Roasting plays a pivotal role in developing the complex flavors of cacao. The cacao nibs are carefully roasted to enhance their aromatic qualities and deepen the flavor profile. Roasting time and temperature are important factors that vary depending on the desired characteristics of the final tablea product.
Grinding the roasted nibs
Once the cacao nibs have been roasted to perfection, they are ground into a fine paste or liquor. This process involves using specialized grinding equipment to transform the roasted nibs into a smooth, homogeneous texture. The grinding process intensifies the chocolatey aroma and facilitates the release of cocoa butter, adding richness to the tablea.
Molding the tablea
The final step in tablea production is molding. The ground cacao paste is carefully poured into molds, which can be various shapes and sizes, depending on the desired presentation. The molds are then cooled and solidified to form the distinctively shaped tablea tablets that can be stored or used for making hot chocolate drinks.
The process of transforming cacao beans into tablea is an intricate and fascinating journey. From harvesting and fermentation to drying, roasting, grinding, and molding, each step contributes to the development of the unique flavors and aroma that make tablea a beloved Filipino delicacy.