The Great Guatemalan Pataxte Experiment
I spent five weeks this summer in Guatemala, moving from cacao farm to cacao farm, and spending the requisite downtime in my old hometown of Antigua. Martin Christy of SeventyPercent.com also blogged about his adventures in Central American cacao this summer (we crossed paths), and he does a good job of sticking to the facts, rather then moving into the kind of "esoteric and quasi-philosophical" writing (as one of my family members put it last night) that I tend to do. But I do have one story worthy of some fairly straight-forward news reporting: Pataxte.
"Pataxte" is a local name for theobroma bicolor, a largely uncultivated cousin of cacao, whose oddly textured pale green pods could be props for alien brains in a B movie. Guatemalan chocolate makers sometimes replace some of their cacao with pataxte to bring down their costs. The stuff doesn't have a very glamorous profile locally, but international chocolate makers have been buzzing about the possibility of making candy with theobroma bicolor, since the seeds are pure white. When I drove to the coastal department of Retalhuleu with my friend Fernando (who was buying hand-peeled cacao beans for a new confection he's making at his Fernando's Kaffee in Antigua), cacao farmer Genaro Maldonado (a man with a careful hand at grafting cacao trees, knowledge of fermentation that he picked up in Honduras, and a generally phenomenal sense of how to lay out an orchard) cut down a couple of pataxte pods for us to experiment with. Back at Fernando's place, I enlisted the help of Josh Sermos, an American transplant who's whispering rather loudly about starting a bean-to-bar chocolate company in Guatemala, to process the stuff. Josh's plan was to churn out a pataxte bar, a project that was (arguably) so novel that it was worthy of a video:
A few days later, our foray into pataxte processing had yielded a couple of handfuls of semi-fermented, slightly burnt white beans. Josh wasn't confident that he was the man to grind, conch, and mold our microbatch of pataxte after all. I popped a roasted, peeled, pataxte bean into my mouth. It tasted vaguely like Passover matzo, which is to say that it didn't taste like much. Fernando and I had to come up with something creative.
Well, it turns out that, with a little salt, pataxte makes a decent mid-afternoon snack.