For every child and even most adults, chocolate is a much sought-after treat. Despite threats of ‘It will rot your teeth’ adults can never put children off chocolate. But do you know how chocolate came into being?
Did you know that chocolate dates back to 1900 BC? The cacao tree from which chocolate is made out of is native to Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica is an area stretching from modern day central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.
It is said that various people from Mesoamerica such as the ancient Mokaya people, fermented, roasted and ground cocoa beans to make chocolaty drinks. But unlike today’s various chocolate drinks that we enjoy, back then chocolate was served as a bitter, frothy liquid, mixed with spices such as chilies, wine or corn puree. It is said that the origins of the word chocolate probably comes from the Classical Nahuatl word xocolātl which means bitter water, and entered the English language from Spanish.
Despite being around since 1900 BC, the rest of the world, particularly the Europeans only got wind of this wonderful treat in the 16th century. It was the Spanish conquistador that first got to know of Chocolate.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first European to encounter chocolate when he observed it in the court of Montezuma in the 16th century. Hernán Cortés led an expedition bringing large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century. Historian Antonio de Solís noted the daily intake of chocolate by Montezuma the ruler of Tenochtitlan in 1685.
After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, chocolate was imported to Europe thus introducing it to whole world. There, it quickly became a favorite. It was still served as a beverage, but the Spanish added sugar or honey to counteract the natural bitterness perhaps making it more similar to the yummy chocolate drinks of today.
Cacao plantations spread, as the English, Dutch and French colonized and planted. However, sadly this new craze for chocolate brought with it a thriving slave market, as between the early 17th and late 19th centuries the laborious and slow processing of the cacao bean was manual and cacao production was often the work of poor wage laborers and African slaves. Chocolate remained a treat for the elite and the wealthy until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution which brought steam-powered engines to speed the processing of the bean and made it possible to mass produce chocolate.
As the processes for chocolate making became more efficient, new techniques and approaches revolutionized the texture and flavor. In 1815, Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten introduced alkaline salts to chocolate, which reduced its bitterness.
A few years thereafter, in 1828, he created a press to remove about half the natural fat from chocolate liquor, which made chocolate both cheaper to produce and more consistent in quality. This innovation introduced the modern era of chocolate. Known as “dutch cocoa”, this machine-pressed chocolate was instrumental in the transformation of chocolate to its solid form when in 1847 Joseph Fry learned to make chocolate moldable by adding back melted cacao butter. Milk had sometimes been used as an addition to chocolate beverages since the mid-17th century, but in 1875 Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate by mixing a powdered milk developed by Henri Nestlé with the liquor. In 1879, the texture and taste of chocolate was further improved when Rudolphe Lindt invented the conching machine.
Besides Nestlé, several chocolate companies had their start in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cadbury was manufacturing boxed chocolates in England by 1868. In 1893, Milton S. Hershey purchased chocolate processing equipment at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and soon began the career of Hershey’s chocolates with chocolate-coated caramels.
From the companies in existence today, the Edna Chocolates Company is one of the oldest chocolate manufacturers in Sri Lanka. Founded in 1952, by its founder the late EBR Wimaladasa and his wife, the company started manufacturing Chocolates in Mawanella under the name and style EDNA CORPORATION. Interestingly the name Edna came about from the first letters of his name and his wife Nalini. The business commenced operations with the manufacturing of confectionery and supplying engineering components to small industries.
Today Edna not only makes yummy chocolates for us,but also they are also exported to Bangladesh, Nepal, India, South East Asia and other countries. The company also has the largest Cocoa processing plant in Sri Lanka, which exports its finished products: Cocoa-liquor and Cocoa-butter to Cadbury India Ltd.
Is chocolate more healthy than fruit?
With Valentine’s Day approaching, you might find more chocolate around the house. It turns out, that tempting treat might not be such a bad snack.
That’s according to a recent study released in the Chemistry Central Journal, which says chocolate might be a more health option than fruit.
The study says that dark chocolate and cocoa have more anti-oxidant capacity than fruit juice, and also more heart healthy flavanols and polyphenol.
Cocoa beans are even considered a “super fruit,” the study says, with more antioxidant capacity than blueberries, cranberries and pomegranate powder on a per gram basis.
Hearing about the study was welcomed news for chocolate lovers, and the search terms "chocolate more healthy than fruit" have surged in Yahoo! searches this week.
But be careful of completely substituting chocolate for fruit. After all, the study was conducted by Hersheys.
Mayan farmers cash in on world's growing appetite for specialty chocolate
By Joshua Berman
After fermenting and drying the cacao seeds, the next step is to remove the shells by hand.
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.
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 Annual Cacao Fest each spring (May) celebrates 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, [email protected], 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, [email protected], 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.
AJAW Chocolate Video: Video on growing and making Chocolate
Been to AJAW Chocolate yet? You can make your own chocolate there. Here's a great video where you can learn about the cacao tree, and the delicious treat.
Adrian Choco is a local tour guide and chocolate maker. In this video you will see the process of making the Ajaw Chocolate located in the heart of San Ignacio for a taste of Belize.
Making Mayan Chocolate with Ajaw Chocolate & Crafts!!
Take a tour of AJAW's cacao farm and storefront in town. Learn all about cacao. Settle in because we're got a sweet treat for you this week! We venture down to the Ajaw Chocolate farm to find out where the best chocolate in the world comes from, and show you how to make REAL Mayan Hot Chocolate. Come along! For more information on Ajaw Chocolate, visit: https://ajawchocolate.com
Not everything about chocolate is sweet, including its history. If you look closely enough, you can see some Maya artifacts with paintings of people gathering, preparing, or drinking cacao.
Belize Mayan Chocolate: Cool Facts & History First off, if we were to go back in time and say “chocolate” around the ancient Maya they’d likely laugh at us for our funny accents but still be able to ascertain what we are referring to. How? Simple – Chocolate is a word derived from the original name that was Xocolatl. Mayan ‘x’ was pronounced ‘sh’ which would have that word sound pretty close to the way many Europeans would still say it to this day.
The preparation and use of chocolate date back to the Mayan classic period which extended from 900 to 250 BC and as far back as 1900BC by the Olmecs which puts us somewhere near 3917 years of enjoying the stuff.
In Mayan society, chocolate was a treat reserved for the elite. It was held in almost sacred regard and consumed both recreationally and ceremonially by Mayan kings, priests and in the Aztec civilization famed warriors as well.
Discover the unique Maya chocolate making process at Ixcacao in the Toledo District, Belize.
Chocolate Education: Another Belizean Adventure
Chocolate is healthy! Ok hear me out, cause we’ve all been told to put down the chocolate cake or refuse the chocolate bar staring us in the face at the grocery store checkout. It has become associated with all the calorie dense, fatty, sugary things that we should consume less of, but it’s really not chocolate’s fault. We learned this and so much more on our quest to educate our mini blogger while traveling and enjoying the jewel that is Belize.
Our travels took us down a dirt road and to the gates of a farm and factory just outside Punta Gorda Town in Toledo District, Belize. Juan, of Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate, was willing to give us a tour of their facility on a Sunday. Since the machines don’t work over the weekend, we did not get to see large batches of cacao being processed. Still, we got to learn a lot about the origins of the exotic fruit and how the Maya people processed it hundreds of years ago.
CLICK HERE for the rest of the story and more pictures in the iTravel Belize Blog
Situated in San Ignacio Town, Ajaw Chocolate and Crafts attracts thousands of visitors every year, but the family owned and operated company is struggling to get its name out there. As part of this year’s B.T.B. familiarization trip, the media was taken to Ajaw and shown the Mayan art of transforming cacao beans into chocolate by hand. Hipolito Novelo reports.
Hipolito Novelo, Reporting
Chocolate- it’s one of the most delicious foods in the world, enjoyed by millions of people in nearly every shape and form. But do you know how it is made and where it comes from? Did you know that Belize produces chocolate? The Toledo Cacao Growers Associations ships about one hundred tons of chocolate for export every year. Ajaw Chocolate and Crafts contributes to the chocolate exportation. Based in San Ignacio,Ajaw Chocolate partnered with seventy-eight-year-old Marcelo Medina for the use of his twenty-acre farm to plant and grow cacao trees.
Marcelo Medina, Farm Owner
“I started this farm in 1970. Figure out from 1970 to 2018, how many years is that?”
“It is decades.”
“But the idea is, the fruit trees that you plant, some of them do not bear lot. Some of them are just for ten, fifteen years. Then the idea is to continue having fruits all through the year, you plant when you see the tree is old, you move to another one and in between you plant another one.”
Medina’s farm was perfect for Ajaw’s chocolate endeavor. The partnership was officially cemented about seven years ago when the owner of the company, Adrian Choco a Punta Gordanative discovered that Median’s farm possesses the perfect type of soil for the planting and growing of cacao trees.
Adrian Choco, Owner, Ajaw Chocolate
“We did about eleven soil testing all across San Ignacio and found out that this property was one of the best areas to actually produce cacao trees.”
“How many trees are here?”
“We only have about a hundred and fifty trees but out mission within five years from now is to have about five hundred trees. A tree can produced per year it can give us about five pounds of solid cacao beans and this could be about three to seven percent moisture in each bean. Here in San Ignacio we get about thirty to fifty pounds of cacao beans from this farm but most of ours, we support our own family cacao buying we also support Toledo Cacao Growers Association because these are indigenous people who are thriving to bring back cacao farming or make an income in Belize.”
The process of planting cacao seeds, nurturing the tree to a mature stage for harvest can in itself be a lengthy process. Then there comes the actual making of chocolate-transforming the cacao seeds into chocolate goodness.
“In Belize we look at specific soils, plant the seeds. It takes about five to seven days. It shoots out. Practically in a good soil, five to seven days later it can produce a thousand to two thousand flowers. Out of that eighty to an average of two hundred cacao pods can be from the trunk to all over known as the cauliflower method. Then you harvest from practically November to about June, our off season. Then you broke and go through a method, depending with the chocolatier you are working with, it can happen about seven, nine or fourteen days max for fermentation. Than being then looking at moisture, acidity and flower nod leads you to a better quality of flavor of chocolate. Eventually that goes through the washing method, sun dried beans for three or four days and eventually roasting happens.”
Since 2015, Ajawhas produced more than three tons of chocolate annually. It is a small amount compared to other export products, but for Choco, it is worth it.
“It’s a risk, fifty-fifty, as any potential business. At our end we are proudly promoting Mayan culture.”
“Do you have any days when you say that you want to quit the chocolate business?”
“Definitely because we did not master it in high school. It is a lot of work. There are many times your beans can be ruined during fermentation. Probably you can lose the flavor of cacao beans. I think that there a lot of advantages and disadvantages in cacao making and in the chocolate industry on a whole.”
The other half of Choco’s business includes the promotion of the Kekchi Maya’s chocolate making art. His wife, Elida, takes care of that part.
Elida Choco, Ajaw Chocolate
“Our aim here is to promote the culture more especially the Ketchi Culture. Our aim here is to promote traditional chocolate making, stone grinding of cacao beans, turned it into a paste and serve it as a beverage. It is actually an art. It is not something that you learn in book. It is something that you learn from your parents, grandparents; they pass it down to you. You start as a kid, crushing the beans on the stone. Eventually you find yourself behind the stone. It becomes part of your chores. The art, you learn it and a lot of practice. The idea is to crush the beans without adding water to it. The bean has a natural cacao butter as you crushing you are creating heat and friction. It releases that natural cacao butter. It turns into a paste and no liquid added to it. At the end you are getting one hundred percent pure cacao or for many people around the world, baking chocolate.”
Some six thousand tourists visit Ajaw Chocolate and Crafts every year, but the company is still struggling with wider marketing campaigns.
“And also one of the things that we do not have and actually, mechanically because we do use machines and some of the machines broke down. We do not have mechanics in Belize. We do not have parts in Belize. It is very difficult to import machines in San Ignacio. You also have to look at the type of foil. There is a specific type of foil and you don’t find that type of foil in Belize. So it is very difficult to bring those products to Belize.”
Researchers find cacao originated 1,500 years earlier than previously thought
As Halloween revelers prepare to feast on chocolate, a new study from an international team of researchers, including the University of British Columbia, is pushing back the origins of the delicious sweet treat.
The study, published online today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, suggests that cacao — the plant from which chocolate is made — was domesticated, or grown by people for food, around 1,500 years earlier than previously thought. In addition, the researchers found cacao was originally domesticated in South America, rather than in Central America.
Archaeological evidence of cacao’s use, dating back to 3,900 years ago, previously planted the idea that the cacao tree was first domesticated in Central America. But genetic evidence showing that the highest diversity of the cacao tree and related species is actually found in equatorial South America-where cacao is important to contemporary Indigenous groups-led the UBC team and their colleagues to search for evidence of the plant at an archaeological site in the region.
“This new study shows us that people in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin, extending up into the foothills of the Andes in southeastern Ecuador, were harvesting and consuming cacao that appears to be a close relative of the type of cacao later used in Mexico — and they were doing this 1,500 years earlier,” said Michael Blake, study co-author and professor in the UBC department of anthropology. “They were also doing so using elaborate pottery that pre-dates the pottery found in Central America and Mexico. This suggests that the use of cacao, probably as a drink, was something that caught on and very likely spread northwards by farmers growing cacao in what is now Colombia and eventually Panama and other parts of Central America and southern Mexico.”
Theobroma cacao, known as the cacao tree, was a culturally important crop in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica — a historical region and cultural area in North America that extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. Cacao beans were used both as currency and to make the chocolate drinks consumed during feasts and rituals.
For the study, researchers studied ceramic artifacts from Santa Ana-La Florida, in Ecuador, the earliest known site of Mayo-Chinchipe culture, which was occupied from at least 5,450 years ago.
The researchers used three lines of evidence to show that the Mayo-Chinchipe culture used cacao between 5,300 and 2,100 years ago: the presence of starch grains specific to the cacao tree inside ceramic vessels and broken pieces of pottery; residues of theobromine, a bitter alkaloid found in the cacao tree but not its wild relatives; and fragments of ancient DNA with sequences unique to the cacao tree.
The findings suggest that the Mayo-Chinchipe people domesticated the cacao tree at least 1,500 years before the crop was used in Central America. As some of the artifacts from Santa Ana-La Florida have links to the Pacific coast, the researchers suggest that trade of goods, including culturally important plants, could have started cacao’s voyage north.
Sonia Zarrillo, the study’s lead author and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary who carried out some of the research as a sessional instructor at UBC Okanagan’s department of anthropology, said the findings represent a methodological innovation in anthropological research.
“For the first time, three independent lines of archaeological evidence have documented the presence of ancient cacao in the Americas: starch grains, chemical biomarkers, and ancient DNA sequences,” she said. “These three methods combine to definitively identify a plant that is otherwise notoriously difficult to trace in the archaeological record because seeds and other parts quickly degrade in moist and warm tropical environments.”
Discovering the origins of food that we rely on today is important because it helps us understand the complex histories of who we are today, said Blake.
“Today we all rely, to one extent or another, on foods that were created by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas,” said Blake. “And one of the world’s favourites is chocolate.”
Traces of drinks produced from cacao are present in 3,900 yr previous pottery in South America
Ancient people in South America may have developed a taste for hot chocolate 1,500 years before the Mexicans began growing the plant, a new study suggests.
It had been thought cacao was grown by people for food in central America around 1,900 BC.
New archaeological evidence suggests the tree was harvested by people living in the upper Amazon basin and foothills of the Andes around 3,400 BC, however.
Pottery found alongside the remnants of cacao suggest that they consumed the bean as beverage, experts say.
From there the love of chocolate spread north, researchers from the University of British Columbia claim.
Researchers studied ceramic artefacts from Santa Ana-La Florida, in Ecuador, the earliest known site of Mayo-Chinchipe culture, which was occupied from at least 5,450 years ago, to make the findings.
Previous archaeological evidence of cacao’s use dating back 3,900 years planted the idea that the cacao tree was first domesticated in Central America.
New genetic evidence shows that the highest diversity of the cacao tree and related species is actually found in equatorial South America, where cacao is important to contemporary indigenous groups.
Researchers looked for clues in ceramic pieces unearthed at the archaeological site and found traces of cacao, which suggested it was used far earlier than thought.
‘This new study shows us that people in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin, extending up into the foothills of the Andes in southeastern Ecuador, were harvesting and consuming cacao that appears to be a close relative of the type of cacao later used in Mexico – and they were doing this 1,500 years earlier,’ said study co-author Professor Michael Blake, from the university’s department of anthropology.
‘They were also doing so using elaborate pottery that pre-dates the pottery found in Central America and Mexico.
‘This suggests that the use of cacao, probably as a drink, was something that caught on and very likely spread northwards by farmers growing cacao in what is now Colombia and eventually Panama and other parts of Central America and southern Mexico.’
Theobroma cacao, known as the cacao tree, was a culturally important crop in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
This was a historical region and cultural area in North America that extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.
Cacao beans were used both as currency and to make the chocolate drinks consumed during feasts and rituals.
But ceramic artefacts suggested it was highly prized by the Mayo-Chinchipe culture, which occupied the site at Santa Ana-La Florida, in Ecuador, from at least 5,450 years ago.
Researchers used three lines of evidence to show the Mayo-Chinchipe culture used cacao between 5,300 and 2,100 years ago.
They found the presence of starch grains specific to the cacao tree inside ceramic vessels and broken pieces of pottery.
There were also residues of theobromine, a bitter alkaloid found in the cacao tree and fragments of ancient DNA with sequences unique to the tree.
The findings suggest that the Mayo-Chinchipe people domesticated the cacao tree at least 1,500 years before the crop was used in Central America.
As some of the artefacts from Santa Ana-La Florida have links to the Pacific coast, this suggested the trade in goods, including culturally important plants, could have started cacao’s voyage north.
Lead author adjunct assistant professor Sonia Zarrillo at the University of Calgary added: ‘For the first time, three independent lines of archaeological evidence have documented the presence of ancient cacao in the Americas: starch grains, chemical biomarkers, and ancient DNA sequences
‘These three methods combine to definitively identify a plant that is otherwise notoriously difficult to trace in the archaeological record because seeds and other parts quickly degrade in moist and warm tropical environments.’
Prof Blake added discovering the origins of food we rely on today is important because it helps us understand the complex histories of who we are today.
He said: ‘Today we all rely, to one extent or another, on foods that were created by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas
‘And one of the world’s favourites is chocolate.’
The study was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Bitter & Sweet: The Fragile Art of Mayan Chocolate
Nestled inside the lush green forest off the coast of Belize, dozens of green and red cacao pods grow.
Cacao has been cultivated here since 1800 BCE, when the Mayans first discovered they could turn these pods into a rich drink.
Today, Mopan Maya chocolate maker Julio Saqui continues to make the fullest use of his country's native cacao trees and the fruits they produce.
Now, though, unsustainable land development and the introduction of outside cultures threaten to extinguish the Mayan traditions he holds dear.
Cinematography + Editing: Jeremiah Rhodes and Matthew Westmoreland
Additional Cinematography: Ari Sen
Music and foley by Epidemic Sound
Special thanks to: Julio and Narciso Saqui, Lil Bill Hill Ranch, and the staff at Che'il Mayan Chocolate
Chocolate Making – a Mayan Art Form!
The history of the cacao in the Mayan culture dates back to thousands of years ago. The cacao beans or seeds were used for trading and also used in drinks, food and rituals. Fast forward to present day the cacao seeds still play a central role in the lives of many Mayan families in Belize. They are using cacao to support their livelihoods; strengthen their communities and preserve and share their cultural practices. One family in Maya Center Village started this about ten years ago when they opened their chocolate business. Julio and Eleadora Saqui created a business called the Che’il Mayan Products. In this first part of our visit to their facility, we take a look at how the family has set its self apart by creating organic chocolate bars. Here is the story with Andrea Polanco.
Andrea Polanco, Reporting
Che’il Mayan Chocolate started about ten years ago. It’s a family owned business in Maya Center village along the Southern Highway. Co-owner Julio Saqui says he figured out his way to an organic locally produced brand of chocolate by trial and error.
Julio Saqui, Co-owner, Che’il Mayan Chocolate
“Ten years ago, I started making chocolate and there was nothing coming out of it. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And so ten years ago I got the opportunity to go out of the country to see how people were making chocolates and all I needed was one shot.”
And ever since then, the family owned business took off. Che’il Mayan Chocolate now offers chocolate tours to give visitors an authentic farm to factory experience. It starts out with an educational walk on the farm to learn about the cacao with farmer Narciso Saqui.
Narciso Saqui, Cacao Farmer
“This is how they bear fruit and not its canopy like other fruit trees. They come right off the branches all the way downwards to the base of trunk where it has flowers here. So, that is where these fruits start from; from the pollination of the flower to maturity we wait three months or four months sometimes because of different times and different varieties. We have nine to eleven varieties here of this fruit here on this farm.”
And once the cacaos are harvested, the pods are cracked open and the beans are collected. Then they are transferred to small facility where they are stored to ferment. After the beans have fermented, they are then dried and roasted. And from there they are taken into the factory to be processed. It’s time consuming work – a labor of love for the Saqui family. And here at the processing facility, where visitors are eighty percent tourists, the Saqui’s are keen on making this educational. So, they have designed the tour in a way that visitors experience the authentic, traditional way of making chocolate in the Mayan culture. It is personalized in such a way that visitors get to create their own chocolates by grinding their cocoa beans on this Mayan stone called a Kah.
But to meet the growing demands for his products – it is almost impossible for Saqui to create orders a hundred percent on this traditional stone. And for that reason they have created a balance between mass production of bars and authenticity which serve as a critical part of this brand’s identity.
“I always keep the Mayan culture as my center piece but at the same time twisting it a little but so that the people can appreciate what other products can be made in chocolate processing by not losing the cultural, traditional way of making chocolate. I don’t want to lose the traditional way of making chocolate because it also does give the chocolate an authentic taste and authentic flavor. Because I didn’t go to school to make chocolate, I was trained by my late mom how to make chocolate. So, I took her knowledge and I took some experience that I have from making chocolate and I created a hybrid. Thus, making our chocolates a lot more different from the other chocolatiers in Belize. I want to keep that as is. I don’t want to lose the culture but I also don’t want to lose how we keep our product from getting out there and being mass produced.”
And Saqui says he has broken the rules in order strike that balance – the roasting of the cacao beans is fifty percent manual and fifty percent mechanical – but authentically Belizean – and still very much Mayan.
“We mix those together to give us an authentic flavor. Our chocolate is different and I can tell you that because a lot of the people that comes always tell me wow how comes your chocolate is so different from the rest?But there are certain things we are doing that are traditional and cultural and we are going to keep it that way. Whereas other processors are just using these electric roasters or just roasting it the way they know it by the books. I don’t go by the books, I break all rules and I make my own rule the way I want it. I guess that is what makes me Che’il – the wild Maya, right?”
And it is this ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that led to the creation of Che’il Mayan Chocolate’s latest chocolate bar – the traveller’s snack bar – his take on candy bar with filling – think Snickers or Mars– but this is healthier, more delicious and it is locally made. Che’il Mayan Chocolates produces a number of other traditional chocolate bars, some are flavoured with vanilla, chili, mint and other locally grown spices and herbs – but no fillers and hardeners. It is such a delicate process that these chocolates must be processed at particular times and stored at the right temperature. Everything is processed, packaged and sold right inside this facility in Maya Center Village.
“It’s just the way that we process our chocolate and how we flavor them. We do not use any artificial flavorings in our chocolate. When we are processing our chocolate bars, as you’ve seen, it’s all pure chocolate. We only use natural ingredients. We don’t use anything that is artificial or synthetic because once you add something that is synthetic or artificial into pure chocolate it is no longer organic. It has changed conventional chocolate. We only make pure chocolate. So, what are our ingredients? It is basically sugar and vanilla and three other ingredients that we add into our chocolate that we don’t want to tell anybody because we don’t want them to know right and we keep it secret. When we do our chocolate, we do it in such a way where the tempering is done properly so that the chocolate just melts on your tongue or your palate and the after taste when you eat it just gives you that fine, unexplainable flavor which is quite unique from all the other chocolatiers.”
And with a unique position in the market – Che’il Mayan Chocolate has leveraged this to capture tourism dollars – but he also wants to get his product out to the local market.
“Our chocolate is made differently. It is grown differently and our whole processing is quite unique from the other processors and I think that is what keeps us on the top so far.I have found, I guess, a unique position in the chocolate industry and I want to maintain that position because that so far has taken us to the level that I want and now that I am at that level, I want to go to the next level which is now topping the Belizean market. I want to be able to get to everybody’s pocket and have it there so that they can enjoy it.”
Chocolate Making – a Mayan Art Form!
The history of the cacao in the Mayan culture dates back to thousands of
years ago. The cacao beans or seeds were used for trading and also used in drinks, food and rituals. Fast forward to present day the cacao seeds still play a central role in the lives of many Mayan families in Belize. They are using cacao to support their livelihoods; strengthen their communities and preserve and share their cultural practices. One family in Maya Center Village started this about ten years ago when they opened their chocolate business. Julio and Eleadora Saqui created a business called the Che’il Mayan Products. In this first part of our visit to their facility, we take a look at how the family has set its self apart by creating organic chocolate bars.
More than Organic, Traditional Chocolate Bars!
We take you back down south to Maya Center Village for part two of our story with Julio Saqui, the co-owner of Che’il Mayan Chocolate. Making authentic and organic chocolate bars is only one aspect of the business. In the following story, we’ll show you how this enterprising local chocolate producer has turned the cacao into a zero-waste fruit inside his facility.
The Cacao – Opportunities for Maya Center
We introduced you to the Saqui family on Tuesday. In tonight’s story, we share with you how the family in Maya Center Village uses the cacao to bring community benefits, beyond the chocolate making facility. Julio Saqui draws parallels to the way cacao is used today and thousands of years ago. Andrea Polanco has a report on how a family-owned business helps to create opportunities to support the livelihood of fellow Mayan families.
The Cacao – Opportunities for Maya Center
Last week we told you about enterprising chocolatier Julio Saqui of Che’il Mayan Chocolate in Maya Center Village. Saqui shares his experience on the hardships COVID-19 has created for his chocolate brand and how he adjusts the way he conducts business to keep Che’il Mayan Chocolate afloat during this pandemic. Here’s the story.
We show this at the beginning of each chocolate class before we start making and tasting chocolate
Cohune Cabbage & Chocolate of Belize Chef Sean Kuylen travels to Southern Belize to learn the art of making Chocolate using traditional Mayan technique plus Belize East Indian Cohune Cabbage (heart of palm) and turmeric tacari