Seeing cacao pods and other spices up close in Bali

(Updated 11/24/16:  fixed broken links, updated photos)

When I read Bill Buford’s 2007 New Yorker article, Extreme Chocolate, about cacao plantations in Brazil and the Dagoba chocolate company*, I thought, “After all of my work with chocolate, it would be amazing to see the trees up close, but I will probably never go to Brazil, the Ivory Coast or another major cacao producing area.”

Then, after my family decided that we would be spending time on Bali during my recent vacation, my excitement was increased further when I discovered that cacao trees — the trees that provide the raw material for chocolate — grow on that fabled island. So I started doing research on the internet, trying this search or that search, sending e-mails here and there.  I came up with some tantalizing clues — like this collection of helpful Bali posts at Raw Model) — but no concrete information about where to find the trees.

And so I when I got to Bali, I had sort of given up.

But in the end, finding cacao trees turned out to be fairly easy.

One day my family hired a driver to take us to see some of the sights near Ubud, like Mount Batur and some temples. We told him that we wanted to see cacao trees and spice-giving plants.  He knew exactly where to go: to an Agrotourism (or Agrowisata, in Indonesian) facility. Our visit was to the Amertha Yoga Agrotourism facility, an small, informal botanical garden and retail shop on the road that goes from Ubud to Tampaksiring (I don’t remember exactly where it was, I think it was north of Tampaksiring).

Seeing Cacao in Bali

It turns out that there are quite a few agrotourism places on the island — on the next day, we stopped at one while on a bicycle trip run by Banyan Tree, the Agrowisata Adhitya Jaya in the village of Marga, in the Tabanan region of the island. The two agrotourism sites we visited contained a collection of food plants, like cacao, coffee, pepper, vanilla, bananas, papaya, and so on; demonstrations of processing, like coffee roasting or arak making (arak is a potent alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented palm tree nectar); tables for tasting coffee or hot cocoa; and a retail store with all sorts of food and non-food products, mostly derived from products shown at the site (but I doubt that they are made from plants grown on-site, given the amount of merchandise available and the small size of the gardens).

Here’s a photo of a cacao pod on a tree. If my memory serves me well, it was about 6 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. The pods I saw were in many sizes and many colors — crimson, greenish-grey, yellow, red with green speckles.  They grow directly from the branches and the trunk, as the photo below shows.

A cacao pod

Here are some of the blossoms and a newly formed pod. The flowers are quite beautiful and complicated; they grow right out of the trunk or a branch.

Cacao flowers

The next picture shows the inside of a cacao pod. Apparently, this pod was ripe, and so I was able to taste the fruit that surrounds the seed (which is what is eventually turned into cocoa powder or chocolate after fermentation and roasting) and the seed itself. The fruit had that subtle aroma of bananas, apples and yeast; and a mild, slightly tropical flavor.  The seed itself was bitter and almost flavorless — it is a great example of how roasting foods creates wonderful flavors.

Interior of a cacao pod. The seeds are inside the white fruity coating.

At the agrotourism site, we also saw the plants that give us pepper, clove, banana, coffee and more. On the bike ride the next day, we saw vanilla and nutmeg. It was quite a thrill.  (My Plants in Indonesia flickr collection has more photos.)



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