Serious Chocolate: Cocoa Is for Drinking, Not Eating, in the Dominican Republic
I just got back from a trip to the Dominican Republic, where I was doing research with a client. When traveling to cocoa-producing countries such as the Dominican Republic, one thing I always look for is how locals consume cocoa and chocolate, and manifestations of this "native" form.
Generally, cocoa farmers around the world don't make the kind of chocolate we're used to eating in the United States, in large part because highly refined chocolate requires lots of power and nearly ubiquitous air conditioning and refrigeration. This may work in big cities, but not out on the farm.
For this reason, most chocolate made by farmers in cocoa-producing countries like the Dominican Republic, is consumed as a beverage, not eaten.
The cocoa beans may or may not be fermented before drying, roasting, and then grinding. Sugar—and optionally vanilla, cinnamon, and/or pepper—can be added to the coarsely ground cocoa mass, then molded into balls or other shapes, before cooling and hardening. As needed, the resulting "chocolate" is grated into water (as is the common practice in Belize where they drink "cocoa water," cold throughout the day to provide energy) or milk.
As I walked around the produce market in the Mercado Modelo, located just outside the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, I kept a sharp lookout for fresh cocoa pods (the pulp is sweet, very refreshing, and nutritious) and dried cocoa beans. I saw none.
I also examined the iconography of the paintings for sale to the tourists, and while there are some very common visual elements, cocoa is not one of them. The only chocolate for sale in stores was candy bars, and the only chocolate desserts were in cheesecake and mousse forms.
This is pretty surprising, considering the Dominican Republic is one of the largest, if not the largest, cacao producer in the Caribbean. When I asked the marketing director of one of the largest cocoa concerns in the Dominican Republic if they served hot chocolate in their office (I was offered coffee), he said they made it "the Dominican way"—light, very sweet, and laced with cinnamon. I politely declined.
Cocoa has been a large part of the Dominican Republic economy for well over a century. One stop on my trip was the Hacienda Elvesia (near the town of El Valle), which Swiss emigrants founded in the 1800s. Presciently, the original Swiss owners transplanted a wide variety of high-quality criollo and trinitario specimens from Venezuela, Trinidad, and other nearby sources. Today, most of these have interbred and created countless hybrids, but there are pockets of criollo porcelana (known for their pale beans and mild flavor) and very high-quality hybrids throughout the farm's approximately 100 hectares (about 250 acres).
Though I was in the Dominican Republic for the cocoa, I rarely turn down an opportunity for an interesting adventure. So, against the advice of the U.S. State Department, I rented a car and drove from Santo Domingo to Sabana de la Mar, on the southern coast of the Bay of Samana. As I gazed out over the bay, I ate a glorious lunch of arroz con camarones washed down with an ice-cold cerveza Presidente at Restaurant Jhonson.
Everyone I met told me that if I made it to Sabana de la Mar, I had to go eat at Jhonson's (spelling of Jhonson is no mistake, since without the "h," it would be pronounced "Yonson").
"They have the best food in town," people said, and I have to agree. I made it to lunch there the next day and had a delicious pescado a la criolla—local redfish, caught that morning, baked in a light sauce with tomatoes, onions, mild peppers, and garlic. And cerveza, of course. The real surprise was an appetizer called "minuta," a local fish (called minuta), butterflied, battered, and fried. With cerveza, of course.
It does not get any better than that. If you ever find yourself in the Dominican Republic, I can heartily recommend making the trek to Sabana de la Mar to take lunch (or several lunches) at Restaurant Jhonson. The only place to stay in the area is an eco-hotel called Paraiso Cano Hondo located on the edge of Los Haitises National Park.
If you do stay—there's really no place else to stay in Sabana de la Mar and it's a very long way to go just for lunch—do not fail to order the magnificent sopa de pescado for dinner. And don't forget the cerveza.
Just don't go looking for chocolate for dessert.
About the author: Clay Gordon has been a professional chocolate critic since 2001. His first book on chocolate, Discover Chocolate was selected as a finalist in the International Association of Culinary Professionals' 2008 Cookbook of the Year Awards. A serious chocolate educator, Clay has created and moderates an online community for chocophiles and aspiring chocophiles - The Chocolate Life.