Football-size cacao pods are cracked to reveal tangy-sweet, almost cottony flesh around the seeds. The seeds are extracted and fermented for one week.


By TRACY L. BARNETT, Special Contributor to the DALLAS NEWS

PUNTA GORDA TOWN, Toledo District, Belize — A sweet, pungent and slightly tangy scent drifts upward to the palm-thatched patio, mixing with the salty sea breeze here at the Chocolate Center of the Universe, otherwise known as Cotton Tree Chocolate.

I contemplate the iced mocha melting on my tongue, and my newly discriminating olfactory can now discern an extra edge: Toledo has taught me why chocolate tastes and smells the way it does.

Cacao is the Toledo District’s biggest export, and I’ve seen it now in all stages of production. A week before, I went to stay in a Mayan village through the Toledo Ecotourism Association’s guest house program, and I took a tour of Reyes Chun’s cacao farm in San Antonio Village. Hiking with Reyes and his boys down a footpath through the jungle, I saw the football-size pods hanging from the trunks of the trees. Reyes whacked at one with a machete and chopped it in half, handing it to me to taste the tangy-sweet, almost cottony flesh around the seeds. It tasted nothing like chocolate.

The boys each grabbed their own pod and sucked away noisily at the seeds as Reyes explained the process to me. These seeds would be taken home and cleaned, then wrapped in banana leaves and placed in a wooden box for seven days to ferment.

“I didn’t know chocolate was fermented!” I exclaimed. “I’ve been eating it all my life, and I had no idea!”

“Oh, yes. That’s why it tastes the way it does,” said Reyes, amused by my astonishment.

Later his wife, Jenny, treated us all to a cup of cocoa and, even better, a demonstration of how she made it. It’s a good thing I didn’t know that it would take an entire hour and a workout worthy of an athlete to produce the beverage. If I’d known what was involved, I’d never have asked.

First, Jenny built a fire in the ground-level wood stove, then placed a flat cooking sheet on top. Here, she toasted the fermented brown seeds. She handed me one to taste. It was sharply sour, and I remembered the tang of extra dark chocolate, which I suddenly understood. She and Reyes took turns stirring them every few moments until they reached a point of crisp but not burned. Then she handed me another. I peeled off the crust and tasted it. Ah-ha! There it was. Deep within the bitter, sour bean was the distinctive taste of chocolate.

Now she scrubbed clean the metate, the four-legged rectangular stone surface worn smooth by years of grinding and pounding in the way Mesoamerican women have done for centuries. The grinding stone was the thickness of a baseball bat, and heavy. Jenny crushed the seeds into a rough crumble.

Now it was time to separate the cocoa from the chaff. Placing the beans into a large bowl, she began tossing them, letting the impact and the breeze blow the shells into the floor.

Back to the metate, she tossed in some black peppercorns and a few seeds of allspice, which grows wild in the rain forests here. She ground for a good while, sweat shining on her face in the sticky jungle heat.

“It has to be very smooth,” she explained.

Earlier, she had placed a few tortillas into a bowl of water, and now she splashed some of the water on the cacao meal, continuing to grind. She worked the meal into a mushy ball. Now it was time to do the same for the tortilla.

Finally, after nearly an hour of toasting and grinding and mashing, she had two sizable balls of mush: one of cacao, the other of corn masa. Now it was time to pull out the calabashes, the gourds grown and dried just for this purpose, as the ancient Maya did. Modern-day coffee cups would do for tea, Coca-Cola and orange Fanta, but when it came to chocolate, it must be served with style.

A big daub of cacao paste and a little daub of corn masa went into the calabash, followed by hot water from the teakettle, which had been steeping on the fire. A big spoon of sugar followed.

Jenny handed me the first steaming calabash, the liquid inside still circling from her spoon. I took a hesitant sip.

Undeniably, authentically chocolate.

Back in Punta Gorda Town, as the locals call Toledo’s diminutive county seat, chocolate was brewing in a more modern, but still distinctly Caribbean way.

“Free tours” reads the sign in front of Cotton Tree Chocolate, a colorful coffeehouse, pizza parlor and mini Willy Wonka chocolate factory all in one. The shop is the creation of former art teacher, sailor and social worker Chris Crowell, founder of Cotton Tree Lodge. The pungent, tangy scent drew me in.

Catarina, a young Maya girl, showed me the steps of the process. No metate here. Instead, there’s a homemade grinder powered by an electric drill. An electric hair dryer expedited the separation process. Powdered milk and vanilla replaced the black pepper, allspice and tortilla. And a sophisticated mixing device stirred it all overnight, creating a consistency that would be placed in molds and left to harden.

My mouth watered as I watched — and smelled — the process. Young Catarina handed me a wooden tasting stick to place into the thick mixture and I indulged. This was chocolate at its finest.

I headed upstairs to the colorfully painted coffeehouse to sample an iced mocha under the thatched roof and savor the sea breeze caressing my face.

Yes, there are certain advantages to modernity, I confessed to myself, savoring every sip. Modern chocolate would be my choice today. But thanks to Jenny’s labors, this ancient Maya miracle will never taste quite the same.

Tracy L. Barnett (www.tracybarnettonline.com) is an independent writer currently traveling in Latin America.

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there

The easiest way to reach Punta Gorda is to book a direct flight to Belize City and then fly on regional carrier Maya Island Air to Punta Gorda. The adventurous (and also possibly cheaper) way is to fly to Cancún, Mexico, and take a bus or rental car, touring the Mayan ruins along the way.

Where to stay

•Low end: Nature’s Way Guesthouse, 82 Front St.; 011-501-702-2119; natureswayguesthouse@hotmail.com. On the waterfront with a homey, backpacker hostel-type atmosphere.

•High end: Cotton Tree Lodge, www.cottontreelodge.com. Beautiful and eco-friendly resort in the heart of the jungle on the banks of a crystalline river.

Where to eat

Gomier’s Vegetarian Restaurant ( www.gomiers.com), served by the Rastafarian poet-chef himself. Or, an East Indian-creole buffet at Marian’s, across from Nature’s Way, on a deck overlooking the sea. Also, Earth Runnins Café and Bukut Bar ( www.earthrunnins.com).

What to do

•Chocolate tours can be arranged by the staff at Nature’s Way (low end) or the at Cotton Tree (high end), both of which can set up an itinerary for every taste.

•For an immersion experience, arrange a stay in a traditional Mayan or Garifuna village through the Toledo Ecotourism Association at teabelize@googlemail.com, with proceeds going directly to the communities themselves.

•Another worthy group is TIDE ( www.tidetours.org), offering trips to Lubaantun Mayan Ruins, Blue Creek Cave, Port Honduras Marine Reserve and many others. Proceeds benefit the affiliated conservation organization.


The fermented brown seeds are toasted until they are crisp but not burned, after which they are ground and eventually turned into mush.


Jenny Chun grinds beans on a stone metate as husband Reyes watches.


Jenny stokes the fire in the simple cement-block stove in her kitchen floor.


Jenny's open-air cupboard doubles as a jungle gym for her children, who sometimes take a perch and watch the kitchen proceedings from above.


Above the tiny chocolate factory, Cotton Tree Chocolate offers espresso drinks and a lively seaside pizzeria.


Cotton Tree Chocolate in Punta Gorda Town uses grinders and mixers. The chocolate is then placed into molds to harden.

Photos: Tracy Barnett/Special Contributor