We went in to make some chocolates, but we came out of the Choco Museo with much more.
We were greeted by Vesna, a lively Peruvian girl, studying to be a lawyer with plans to move to Canada with her boyfriend, and she explained that the workshop would be just with the two of us. I was already impressed; I'd expected to be part of a large group, crowding around to catch glimpses and tastes of chocolate in different stages of preparation.
Once we'd been given aprons we started with a short history lesson. With the aid of a fake cocoa tree, Vesna explained where cocoa comes from, how the beans are extracted and the history of its production.
We were not surprised to learn that Europeans are the largest consumers of chocolate in the world, but it did surprise me to discover that the first chocolate bar was actually produced in the UK around 1830. Before that, the main way chocolate was consumed was in liquid form.
So naturally, we started our lesson in how cocoa is used by making some traditional drinks.
Vesna instructed us to take exactly 15 beans from their supply of fermented and dried cocoa beans (meaning they're just one step away from fresh out of the pod) which we proceeded to roast in a traditional clay pot for about 10 minutes
“You'll know they are ready when it starts to smell like chocolate,” she instructed us.
The next step was to peel the beans and separate the cocoa from the shell. As we worked away, we chatted with Vesna about her studies, about Canada and our travels and impressions of South America and Peru.
Once peeled, we were each assigned a pestle and mortar to grind the cocoa, a process that looked a lot easier than it actually was. To distract us from the effort, Vesna used the cocoa shells to make cocoa tea, which was simply cocoa bean shells steeped in boiling water.
She explained that unlike tea from tea leaves, cocoa tea is actually a stimulant to the nervous system, meaning it gives you energy, and can also aid digestion. We took breaks from our pestle and mortar to drink several cups of the infusion that tasted neither exactly like hot chocolate or tea but a surprisingly pleasant combination of the two.
Newly invigorated, we quickly finished grinding the cocoa and collected our efforts together to use for the next round of drinks.
First was the typical Maya hot chocolate, known as kakaw.
Vesna took a generous tablespoon full of the ground cocoa, and placed it in a pot with a heaped teaspoon of chilli powder and another of achiote (a spice used to give the drink its reddish colour, which was previously achieved by using human blood) and added boiling water.
Kakaw was originally taken by the Maya for its health benefits and during religious ceremonies but is still common in many Central American countries, and Vesna warned us that many people find it quite unpleasant.
I wouldn't say that I hated it, but did find it rather odd. It was bitter, a little sour and slightly spicy, a combination I'm definitely not used to.
“Oh, I'd expected it to be sweet!” Zab said, slightly perturbed after his first sip.
Of course, most people are now used to consuming cocoa and its derivates with sugar or some kind of sweetener, though this was never the case with the cultures who originally cultivated the plant.
Vesna, without saying anything, made a face which said “ok, we can try it sweet if you want, but you're gonna think it's even weirder!” as she added a huge dollop of Peruvain honey to the mixture.
The honey certainly took off the sour edge to the taste, but actually made it seem spicier. I neither like it nor disliked it, just found it very much unlike anything I'd tasted before; it seemed like the kind of flavour you have to get used to in order to enjoy. Zab on the other hand, rather liked the combination of spicy and sweet with a slight sour aftertaste.
We then swiftly moved on to making the traditional European version of hot chocolate, which incorporated the cocoa imported from the New World as well as spices brought from Asia: a few spoonfuls of the cocoa as well as several more of sugar plus a few shards of cinnamon and three or four cloves were added to the pot, to which Vesna added hot milk.
“This is the freshest hot chocolate you're ever going to try,” she said as she poured little cups for us. It was divine, with the slightly grainy texture due to our imperfect hand ground cocoa making it taste even better. We had a second cup each, then a third.
Suitably satisfied with our handiwork, we then moved on to learn about the industrial manufacturing process of chocolate as it is practiced now.
Vesna began to explain: “Each bean is 50% powder and 50% butter, so the first step after fermentation, drying, roasting and peeling is to separate the two parts…”
“…so that different quantities can be mixed together to make different kinds of chocolate,” I continued. I'd never considered how different percentages of cocoa in chocolate was achieved, but it made perfect sense.
Finally, we were ready to make our own chocolates. We were given moulds to choose from and various toppings or flavourings to add to each individual chocolate.
As we filled our little plastic moulds carefully with the prepared chocolate (dark for me, milk for Zab), we continued to probe Vesna about aspects of modern Peruvian culture that we'd noticed but not fully understood. For example, how does the class system work?
“If you have a European surname, and you're a bit more white, then you are probably a middle or upper class Peruvian. The people here with Quechua names and dark skin are usually cleaners, nannies or do manual labour. It's not right, but that's the way it is in Peru.” Vesna shrugged her shoulders.
After a short while in the fridge, our chocolates were ready to be packaged up with a pretty little bow of a colour of our choosing. Zab was especially pleased with his.
We thanked and said goodbye to Vesna, and left the Choco Museo with our little packages and a new appreciation for chocolate and a little more knowledge of how it's made, where it comes from and what it takes to get from those colourful pods in rainforests to the neatly packaged product we pick up without a second thought in the supermarket.
Workshops can be arranged any day of the week at 11.30am, 2.30pm or 5.30pm, last around 2 hours and cost S/70 (£15.50) per person. They take place in the Choco Museo at Berlín 375, Miraflores.
More information can be found on the Choco Museo website.