Vie de Cacao
My Journey Through Southern Belize: The Less-Explored Toledo District (Part 3) 0
I stayed in the southernmost district, which is also the least visited, in Belize—the Toledo District—for a week where a majority of the population is Mayan. Toledo is apparently the least developed district in Belize, and perhaps as a result, still has many breathtaking natural sights.
Once I flew into Belize City’s international airport, I boarded a puddle jumper to fly two hundred miles south to Punta Gorda, the capital of the Toledo District, or “P.G.” as it’s known to locals.
After arriving in P.G., I was driven fifteen miles to the lodge where I’d be staying. This short trip took about forty-five minutes because some of that drive is on a paved road but some of it isn’t.
The further you get from P.G. and head west, the less developed the district is and the more natural beauty you see, including green rain forests in the distance. There are also Mayan villages scattered along the way to the lodge.
I stayed at Cotton Tree Lodge, an eco-lodge, which sits on the Moho River and in the jungle. I fell asleep each night to the sound of crickets; occasionally was awakened in the middle of the night by troops of competing howler monkeys, which emit sounds you’d expect from a T-Rex; and awoke each morning to chirping birds and the sun rays slowly flooding my room. I highly recommend staying at Cotton Tree.
And while I should have expected visitors of the insect kind in my room given that we were in the jungle, it was nonetheless a surprise when I actually did see them in my room! The notable visitors were two scorpions (one about six inches long) and one large, tarantula-esque spider during my week stay. For these fellas, I sprinted to the front office from the cabana furthest from the office to call security to capture them—which meant praying that in the time I was gone, the insect wouldn’t disappear.
Nonetheless, if you’re not squeamish, the lodge is an ideal place for a true jungle experience.
As I mentioned in my previous posts, during part of my stay in Belize, I spent time with Mayan families, such as Eladio and his family. While I knew that English was the official language of Belize, I didn’t know whether it would be widely spoken in the villages but it was with the families I visited. In addition to English, either Mopan or Kekchi Maya was spoken. And I was told that throughout Belize, several languages are commonly spoken, but Belizean Creole or “Kriol” serves as the main spoken tongue.
I also visited places of Mayan significance, such as the ruins at Nim Li Punit. Settlement activity at Nim Li Punit began possibly as early as 400 AD, and it is now a site with royal tombs, a ball court, and stelae. Stelae are carved stone monuments that commemorate important political events and were erected at the direction of Mayan rulers. There are several stelae at Nim Li Punit, and some of the rituals depicted on the stelae are those of bloodletting or offering rituals for the gods.
The Mayans also played a game with a large rubber ball at Nim Li Punit. The exact rules of the game aren’t known, but it’s believed that the game was one of life and death; the players had to hit the ball to each other without using their hands; and in some of the games, the “winner” was put to death as a sacrifice to the gods. (Yikes, perhaps that’s one game you don’t want to win!)
Because Nim Li Punit has only been partially excavated, much remains to be discovered.
Punta Gorda or P.G.
I also spent part of my time in P.G., which is a small town with a handful of main streets that sits on the west coast of the Caribbean Sea and is part of the Gulf of Honduras. There are no beaches in P.G., but there are docks to jump off of for a dip in the Gulf. And in the distance, you see the mountains of Guatemala to the south.
Don’t let the sunny pictures fool you. It rained about one-third or so of the time I was in Belize, and the locals told me that the rainy season had started early this year.
P.G. is home to several ethnicities, including Maya, Kriol, Garifuna (descendants of Carib Indians and West Africans), East Indians, and Chinese. The diversity was apparent just walking the streets of P.G., particularly on Market Day. P.G. hosts Market Day several times a week along Front Street, where fishermen bring in their catch for sale, farmers offer their produce, and Mayan women sell their handicrafts.
I was in P.G. during the annual cacao festival, renamed the Chocolate Festival, which has been held in P.G. for several years. During one of the days of the festival, chocolate-makers and chocolatiers from around Belize showcase their confections.
Local restaurants also offered cacao- or chocolate-inspired food and drink, and locally-made arts and crafts were available.
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While I have more observations about southern Belize that I could share, I wanted to convey the most significant, and I hope that if you have the opportunity to visit Belize, you decide to spend some time in the Toledo District.
Since this is my final post about my journey around southern Belize, I want to thank those who supported this dream and in particular those who helped make it a reality. I received an outpouring of support, and I will be forever grateful for it.
My Journey Through Southern Belize: Preparing Cacao for Chocolate-Making (Part 2) 0
In my last post, you saw how cacao is grown and harvested, particularly on a small scale. In this post, I’ll share an overview of how I observed the cacao pulp and beans taken from their raw state through fermenting, roasting, and drying, resulting in cacao beans that can be used to make chocolate.
The first step is fermentation, which is largely when the flavor of the cacao bean is developed. Once the pulp and beans are removed from the cacao pods, they are taken through the fermentation process. The facility I visited in Belize takes the cacao beans through fermentation in wooden bins—that are outdoors—in three stages over a span of five to seven days (see picture).
During this period, the beans in the wooden bins are covered with banana leaves or sacks. The cacao beans are transferred from one row of bins to another, for the sake of rotating the beans, controlling the temperature that the beans emit during fermentation, and allowing for consistent fermentation. During the fermentation process, the cacao beans turn from whitish purple to a reddish brown color.
Once fermented, the beans are set outdoors to dry for up to seven days. Here’s Eladio drying cacao beans outside his home under the sun. He turns them over during that time to ensure the beans dry evenly.
After the cacao beans are dried, they are roasted. At Eladio’s, his eldest daughter roasted the cacao beans for approximately thirty minutes on a comal—a heavy, circular cast iron griddle. She had also used the comal earlier in the afternoon to show us how to make corn tortillas to enjoy with our lunch.
Once the beans are roasted, they open easily and reveal cacao nibs. Eladio’s daughter used a stone to crack the beans open, and I followed her lead.
After cracking the shells of the beans, she gathered the shells and nibs in a large bowl and separated them by tossing them until most of the shells had fallen out and the nibs remained in the bowl.
At the factory I visited, this process of winnowing (separating the shell from the nibs) was accomplished by using the air from a hair dryer to blow the shells away. Again, this is all being done on a relatively small scale.
Once the cacao nibs are separated, you have nibs that can be enjoyed as-is. In order to transform the nibs into chocolate, however, there are additional steps that have to be taken.
After a hearty lunch with Eladio at his home, his daughter prepared a hot drink for us from the nibs that she had just separated from the cacao beans. She showed us two methods of grinding the cacao nibs into a paste. The first was to crush the cacao nibs on a volcanic stone called a “metate” by moving a stone back and forth over the nibs.
She also showed us that the nibs could be ground by placing them in a manually-operated tabletop grinder. I’d seen that grinder also used to grind corn for tortillas.
After grinding the nibs into a paste, Eladio’s daughter stirred some of the paste with hot water, allspice, and ginger for a hot drink. If you’ve had nibs before, you can imagine the drink was bitter but had a rich chocolate taste. I hesitate to call it “hot chocolate” because it’s 100% cacao, water, and spices—very different than the hot chocolate we are accustomed to in the U.S.
Seeing the cacao fruit before it’s transformed into chocolate was a remarkable experience. And my time in southern Belize was likewise life-changing. Stay tuned for a post on the culture of southern Belize.
My Journey Through Southern Belize: Cacao Farming & Harvesting (Part 1) 0
A little over a week ago, I found my time in southern Belize coming to an end, and I kept thinking about how much I had to share with you about the food, people, and culture I experienced during this unbelizeable (yes, yes, I said it again) trip.
I’ve managed to break it down into a three-part series: in this part, I’ll describe how I saw cacao being farmed and harvested, including a visit with a delightful local farmer and his family; in the second part, you’ll see how cacao beans are prepared for use; and lastly, I’ll share my experiences in the colorful Toledo district of southern Belize, which is Belize’s least visited district, and not quite what you see in ads for Belizean resorts.
When I arrived in Belize and spotted a cacao tree, I felt like a kid for the first time at Disney. It was surreal to pull a cacao pod off the tree, break it open, and eat the slightly sweet, tangy pulp in the middle of the jungle. While I’d read and learned about cacao in courses I’d taken, seeing the cacao tree firsthand brought me indescribable joy.
The cacao tree only grows ten to twenty degrees north and south of the equator and where it’s hot and rainy, which is why a climate like Belize’s is ideal. The tree grows cacao pods, and each pod bears the beans that are eventually made into chocolate. After three to five years, the trees start producing pods that are ready for harvesting.
Cacao pods start out as white flowers, and through the process of pollination, a small percentage of those flowers develop into pods. You see, many plants reproduce sexually, and the cacao tree is one of those. Each cacao flower has male and female parts, but they cannot fertilize themselves. Pollination can be achieved manually (by human hands), but the natural way is for tiny gnat-like insects, called midges, to pollinate the cacao flower.
The cacao pods can be a variety of colors, depending on the type of cacao tree. As the pods ripen, the color of the pods tends to become yellow, or yellow or orange in the creases.
The pods ripen after five to eight months. Once a cacao pod is ripe, you don’t want to leave it on the tree too long or it will decompose and die. Cacao pods aren’t like other fruits that fall off the tree when they are ripe.
I visited two cacao farms in southern Belize and saw how cacao is harvested and transformed into chocolate, largely by hand, and in any case, certainly on a small scale—the process is labor intensive.
One of the cacao farms I visited was Eladio Pop’s. In addition to being a gifted farmer (including farming cacao), Eladio is an inspiration—the smile on his face and the light in his eyes never left him the few hours we were with him. He is a truly happy man who feels blessed that he has been entrusted from above to grow cacao and share it with others.
Eladio and his wife have fifteen children—yes, fifteen children. Ahhhh, the aphrodisiacal nature of the cacao fruit! Would he and his wife consider adopting me as their sixteenth child so I could stay and farm with him?
Eladio walked us around his farm for over an hour. The farm actually looked like we were in the middle of the jungle—trees and plants of everything you can imagine growing everywhere—from cacao to sugarcane, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, ginger, and more.
Eladio’s approach to farming is more than just organic—everything has a purpose, and he was put on this Earth to see that it all works together. For instance, he understands that ants are his little gardeners. They create healthy soil by eating and helping decompose matter in the soil, and by digging tunnels and turning over dirt, so all he has to do is scoop it up and plant it around his trees as fertilizer.
Eladio took handfuls of the soil and used it to fertilize a few cacao trees. He then slowly twisted a few ripe cacao pods off a tree for us. If you aren’t careful in how you remove the pod from the tree, you’ll risk damaging the stem on the tree that attaches the pod to the tree and another cacao flower won’t grow from that same stem. Eladio used a machete to skillfully cut open the pod without damaging the pulp or beans inside. At another farm, the pod was opened by gently whacking it on a tree branch and then twisting the pod open.
The inside of a cacao pod is frighteningly amazing. The pulp surrounding the beans is a white to a subtle lavender color and subtly sweet.
Once each pod was opened, the pulp and beans were removed by hand.
I don’t think I would have ever looked at the pulp and even thought about tasting it, much less thought about fermenting, drying, and roasting it into something just as magical as chocolate. The pulp was delicious.
Eladio believes the cacao fruit is a healer. I tend to agree. And though we walked for over an hour, I couldn’t put down that pod—if I couldn't bring that pod back to the U.S. with me, I sure was hoping to harness as much of its power before I left!
As Eladio guided us up and down the steep hills at a furious pace, he fed us from his labor—in addition to feeding us cacao pulp, he handed us pieces of sugarcane, apple bananas, and more. I wish I hadn’t eaten breakfast!
We walked around Eladio’s farm as I balanced an opened cacao pod and sugarcane in one hand and camera in the other hand—nibbling on cacao pulp and biting into sugarcane along the way and managing to capture everything I could with my camera. It was a perfect beginning to my time in southern Belize.
After our hike, we hopped into the van that drove us to Eladio’s home to eat lunch and enjoy a hot drink made from cacao by his eldest daughter. In the next post, I’ll share how I saw cacao beans being prepared for use.