I was 19 when I first experienced harvesting cacao fruits with my father. I realized it was my father’s first time to pluck cacao fruits off the tree as well. He was surprised how difficult it was to remove the fruits from their twigs. We discovered that the fruits were so attached with the tree that they just dry there hanging on the twig and only fall down when they were entirely black. The tree looked grim with all the hanging black, rotten cacaos. We plucked them off and threw them on the ground. It was as hard to remove as the fresh fruits.
My father rarely talked when we started harvesting and collecting the ripe cacao fruits. The only times he talked was when he would tell me to pick up the fruit that fell on the ground and put it on the huge plastic bag I was holding. I was used to having imported chocolates in golden foils handed to me by my father when he would come home from work abroad. And after years of struggling overseas, here was my father with me in our backyard, harvesting yellowish cacao to add to the dozen I already had in my bag.
When I was a kid, I never wanted anything else but the chocolates father brought home almost every year. It didn’t matter then whether he was home for Christmas or not. We grew used to it. We grew used to having chocolates as a consolation for his long absence. But now as I was plucking off cacao with him, I realized I wanted him more than all the creamy, bitter-sweet chocolates combined. He had been away for years and I realized, as his calloused hands were struggling to pluck off some ripe cacao fruit, that there was nothing more beautiful than this moment.
He told me to bring the cacao fruits to my mother so she could remove the seeds and have them dried up the next day. I ran back to the house feeling like a kid again because for the first time, I would be making cocoa tablea from scratch – exactly where almost all the chocolates in the world came from. It would be exciting to finally know the beginnings of something I love.
When my mother opened the first cacao fruit, it looked more like marang to me than something where chocolates could be from. If not because of my childhood books and what my mother told me, I wouldn’t even think chocolates could be from something as clumpy and white as cacao. When I tasted it, the disbelief was especially stronger. It didn’t taste like chocolate at all! Nor did it taste like marang. It actually tasted like a whole new different fruit. I couldn’t be wrong. The sourness and the texture of the fruit were exactly like that of the mangosteen. Something so different and unexpected when I think of chocolates.
The seeds to be dried up were separated and put on a nice piece of laid sack. My mother washed it again and again until even the whole sack was dripping wet, then she laid it on the front yard where the sun shone particularly brighter that morning.
My brother and I took mental notes of her instructions to transfer the seeds on specific times of the day, when the rays of the sun would shift to the west. We were careful not to forget that we were to bring it inside once the rain had threatened to pour.
The seeds were left to dry under the sun for a couple of days until they were completely parched. When they were all dried up, the seeds were gathered together to be stirred continuously in a large hot wok or pan.
I felt like a pro while ladling the dried seeds inside the pan, my left hand akimbo. My mother told me not to stop stirring so the seeds wouldn’t burn.
I waited for the seeds to peel as I continued stirring. My right hand was growing numb but I couldn’t stop. I shouldn’t lest the seeds get burned. Not a single seed was getting peeled but I knew they were starting to get cooked. Their color was changing from light brown to almond brown.
After the seeds were taken from the pan, they were left to cool at room temperature for a few hours. But if they weren’t needed as immediately, the cooked seeds could actually be good until a few days, I was told. After cooling, they were peeled one by one before they can be pulverized.
My mother said the peeling ought to be easy now because the heat when cooking should have made the skin separate from the seed naturally. But I didn’t know why it was so difficult when we did it. We had to use our nails just to peel every seed. I figured perhaps we haven’t cooked the seeds enough. But I didn’t mind that the peeling was extra tedious. I found myself peeling in front of the television for hours. When we were finished, it was time to cook for dinner. Because I spent a long time peeling cacao seeds, I smelled like it even after bathing. I thought the smell of fresh cocoa was in the air I breathe. It was so addictive. Finally, after harvesting and cooking the seeds, the whole house smelled like chocolates. I could taste the chocolates in the air. Not marang, not mangosteen. Chocolates.
Lucky for us, my father bought a small coffee bean’s “pulverizer” a long time ago which we could use with our cacao seeds. Because it was old, my father and brother tried hard to make it work. There were loose screws that needed to be tightened and some screwed up gears that needed a little smoothening up. It was a bit old already and so my father and brother had a hard time maneuvering it. Sometimes I thought, beautiful things really don’t come randomly. We have to work hard for what we wanted. Chocolates, I supposed, could be counted in as well.
The pulverized seeds were naturally oily which made it easier for my mother to mold. She put them inside the freezer for a few hours until they were rocky hard. These molded tablea were exactly what we could use with almost anything that involved chocolates. We could make champorado, hot steaming chocolate drink, or even make chocolate bars and candies. What made it more fun and interesting was everyone did their share – my father and I harvested the fruits, my mother and I peeled the seeds which my father and brother pulverized after – everyone helped and it made me feel how significant this whole project actually was.
When I was kid, chocolates were something I just wanted to eat. I didn’t care how they were made and where they were from. It tasted great, the pleasure was fleeting but I didn’t want anything more. I got used to it being available that satisfaction became ordinary.
But when I experienced the process of doing tablea, I realized the pleasure was stronger. The happiness was more intense even before we had started making the actual chocolates, which was apparently where all the happiness was supposed to be from. I realized there was more to happiness coming from chocolates.
My father used to be away for a long time and every time he came home, the chocolates seemed to be non-verbally saying “I missed you, kids” or “I’m sorry I wasn’t here last Christmas”. Perhaps it wasn’t just about tearing off the golden foil to smell the chocolates. It was more than that. It was about my father coming home.
Jennie graduated from University of the Philippines Mindanao, where she took up BA English (Creative Writing). She has been a fellow for Creative Non-Fiction to the 2016 UST National Writers Workshop. She now resides in General Santos City.