Making Chocolate in Belize

Mayan kings once traded cacao seeds as currency and drank them in a spicy, sacred beverage. Now, Mayan farmers are cashing in, thanks to the world's growing appetite for specialty chocolate.

By Joshua Berman

Belize's remote southern Toledo region doesn't make it onto many tourist itineraries, but it was at the top of mine this summer. The guidebook I write was due for an update, and I was eager to check out reports of chocolate tours and hands-on lessons offered at farms spread across Toledo's lush hills and valleys. My wife and mother-in-law didn't take much persuading.

MADE IN BELIZE

In San Felipe, a village of about 65 homes, we meet up with Cyrila Cho, whose family has been farming chocolate for generations. She quickly disappears among the cacao trees and emerges with an oblong yellow pod from a trunk. She splits it open with the whack of a club and presents me with the goo-covered seeds. I imitate her by removing one, placing it in my mouth, sucking off the sweet-tart pulp, then spitting the seed to the ground. The pulp doesn't taste at all like chocolate, which is made from the seed.

Cyrila leads us into her cramped concrete kitchen, where a pile of dried, roasted, and peeled cacao beans lies on an old grinding stone. "With this matate I raised six children," she says, as she leans into the stone with all her weight. The beans shatter and mix with the wild vanilla, allspice, and sugar she has added. A savory odor lingers in the air.

The Chos have found a way to connect ancient cacao farming with the modern craze for quality, fair-trade products. Their five-hour chocolate tour begins with a visit to son Juan's organic cacao farm. He sells to the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, a nonprofit coalition of about a thousand small farms that sells to acclaimed chocolatier Green & Black's. The tour then moves to Cyrila's home, where she and her daughter lead a Mayan chocolate-making session.

Just down the road, on the banks of the Moho River, the Cotton Tree Lodge produces its own brand of chocolate. The one-room, 100-bar-a-day operation has refrigerators and special chocolate-blending ("conching") machines powered in part by solar panels. Cotton Tree runs weeklong chocolate packages and day trips that give guests a chance to tour a nearby cacao farm before heading to Cyrila's to peel toasted cacao beans while sipping on pinnul, a traditional cacao-and-corn drink.

The work is slow going. My wife, my mother-in-law, and I need more than 30 minutes to peel enough beans to be ground into a single bar of chocolate. Afterwards, we take turns on Cyrila's matate until the oil of the seeds adds a shiny luster to the brown paste. When it's sufficiently creamy, she will pour the thick substance into molds and set the bars out to harden. But we've got to press on. We buy some previously made chocolate and cocoa powder, say goodbye to Cyrila and her family, and continue down the trail.

Chocoholics, Take Note
Toledo is about a 50-minute plane ride from Belize City. The alternative, a roughly five-hour drive, isn't bad now that the Southern Highway has been improved. The final nine-mile stretch of dirt is being paved, and daily express bus service is offered on school buses painted with Rasta colors based in Punta Gorda.

The Third Annual Cacao Fest, May 22-24, 2009, will celebrate all things chocolate by offering a host of local products—from cupcakes and kisses to cacao wine and chocolate cocktails—as well as numerous cultural events.

The Chocolate Tour at Cyrila Cho's includes a traditional caldo (stew) lunch and hot chocolate (011-501/663-9632, juan@theorganicchocolatemaster.com, five-hour tour $60).

Nature's Way Guest House offers eclectic wooden rooms with a fan and shared bath (one room has a private bath). This is Punta Gorda's best backpacker option, with its own links to cacao farmers and Mayan villages (011-501/702-2119, natureswayguesthouse@hotmail.com, double from $17).

Hickatee Cottages is an award-winning, green bed-and-breakfast almost two miles outside Punta Gorda, right up against the jungle (hickatee.com, cottage from $75).

Coral House Inn, on the highest point of Punta Gorda's shoreline, has four rooms overlooking the Caribbean, a small pool, and a bar area (coralhouseinn.net, double from $83).

Cotton Tree Lodge hosts day tours year-round ($79) and two Chocolate Week packages annually—one coinciding with Valentine's Day, the other with Cacao Fest in May. The weeklong packages cover accommodations, meals, cooking classes, dessert making, background on the Fair Trade certification process, and airport transfers (cottontreelodge.com, $1,365). The tree house-like accommodations start at $170 per person per night, with a day tour, all meals, and airport transfers included.

Joshua Berman is the author of Moon Handbooks Belize.

Making Chocolate Like The Mayas Used To

I love chocolate.  I enjoy tasting it every now and then, and as I write this post I have an organic chocolate bar sitting next to my laptop.

But, other than eating it, I knew nothing about chocolate nor how it’s made.

Here in Belize, I had the opportunity to learn how chocolate is made from raw cacao to final product.  But what’s even more interesting is that I learned how to make chocolate like the Mayas did for over a thousand years.

The word cacao originated from the Maya word Ka’kau’, as well as the word chocolate from Chocol’ha and the verb chokola’j – “to drink chocolate together”.

The Maya believed that the ka’kau’ was discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods to be used by the Maya.

Since the cacao was revered as the drink of the gods, only the elite in the Maya society could afford to drink it.  In addition, the cacao seeds were used as a form of currency, so only the wealthy had the pleasure of enjoying the delightful taste of chocolate.

The Mayas passed on their knowledge of cacao through oral history and even in writing, documenting the use and importance of cacao in their daily life and rituals.

Today, in the Cyrila’s Chocolate Farm –owned and operated by Juan and Abelina Cho, a Maya couple– we can see firsthand how their ancestors used to make chocolate.  This is their process:

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

Cacao comes from the seeds of a fruit pod that sprouts directly from the trunk or main branches of the Madre Cacao tree. When the fruit turns green-ish to yellow, it is ripe and ready to be harvested.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

Inside the ripe pods are cocoa beans. These are covered with a soft white flesh that can be sucked. It has a sweet taste.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

The beans are collected and put in a wooden box for fermenting – for a period of 5 to 6 days. Then, they are spread in a flat exterior surface to be sundried. When dry, they can be stored in bags or used as needed.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

Before cracking the shell of the beans, they are roasted in the comal (a heating pan). The shells are thrown away.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

Juan Cho shows his skills in winnowing – the process used to separate the small pieces of shell from the beans.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

The beans can be crushed with a stone to create cocoa nibs. Or…

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

The beans are placed in a Matate, a volcanic basalt stone where they are grinded by hand. The beans have a percentage of butter inside them. When heated with the friction of the grinding process, they turn the crushed beans into a paste.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

Here, Abelina Cho is grinding the beans until they become a soft paste.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

This is the result of grinding the seeds for just a few minutes. It can take 3 to 6 hours of grinding to achieve a smooth paste, depending on the smoothness desired.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

At this point, since the cocoa paste is in its raw form, 100% cocoa, its taste is bitter. Spices and flavors –butter, chile, black pepper, honey, and others– can be added to create a different taste and to reduce the percentage of cocoa.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

Pour the cocoa paste in molds (shown behind the cocoa products) and let dry at ambient temperature.

Maya Chocolate Making Process in Belize

Enjoy!

Add a few machines, bells, and whistles and you’ll have the modern chocolate making technique that other local Belizean companies like Kakaw Chocolate and Cotton Tree Chocolate use, but overall, the process is still similar to what the Mayas did for hundreds of years.

Making Chocolate in Belize


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