Some time ago, I wrote a post about Belizean food. But I didn’t mention all the delicious sweet things that the country produces – from Black Cakes to Coconut Tarts to Rice Puddings to Tres Leches (Three Milks) Cakes. And with most of these desserts packed full of sugar and soaked in evaporated or condensed milk, their sweet deliciousness is only matched by their sugary and fatty unhealthiness. Wash that lot down with a bottle of Coke and ponder why 60% the locals are overweight and 15% have diabetes…
But there’s one more delicious thing that comes from Belize that I have been unashamedly consuming, partly because it’s not as sweet and fatty and unhealthy as the other desserts (or at least that’s what I’ve convinced myself) – chocolate.
The cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao, where Theobroma is Greek for “Food of the Gods”, and Cacao comes from the Mayan name for the tree) is native to the tropical regions of Central and South America. The fruit is inside a pod that ripens from green to red on the tree, and is a white pulp that’s juicy and sweet. But I’ve never seen cacao fruit juice or ice-cream – possibly because there’s very little of it in each pod, but more probably because it’s not the fruit that people are interested in, it’s the seeds inside the fruit. These are the cocoa beans (they’re not real beans, they got called that because they resemble beans), and at this point they smell and taste nothing like chocolate.
The ancient Maya were cacao addicts, and used to grind the beans and mix them with hot water and ground chili pepper to make a drink – when he wasn’t killing and enslaving the natives, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés wrote that, “It is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country, are very greedy of this chocolate drink.” But the Maya never had the idea of mixing the ground beans with other ingredients to make a chocolate bar that you could eat – that didn’t happen until after the Spanish brought the beans back to Europe (creating a craze for chocolate-drinking, and establishing a thriving market in plantations and slaves), and finally, various people with names like Fry, Nestlé, and Lindt developed a molded bar in the 19th century.
Even today, the modern Maya haven’t lost their taste for it, and many of them have the chocolate drink as part of their diet – on my visit to the Cal family of The Living Maya Experience, we washed down lunch with it, and it was surprisingly tasty (in a watery and refreshing kind of way, rather than a rich and chocolatey kind of way).
Hershey’s had a cacao farm in southern Belize in the 1970s and 80s, and then in the 1990s Green & Black’s moved in to buy organic cacao from farms in Toledo, where the all the cacao trees seem to grow (due to the abundant rainfall they get down south, perhaps?). And there are now four Belizean companies making chocolate – Goss, Cotton Tree, Moho, and Kakaw. Goss and Cotton Tree are available all over the country, but I’ve only ever found Moho and Kakaw in their shops in San Pedro (and in Belize City’s Cruise Ship Tourist Village, in the case of Moho). All of them produce the usual varieties of milk and dark, but Kakaw makes a delicious orange-flavoured bar, and Moho makes bars in flavours including Ginger (tasty), Chili (spicy), and Salt & Lime (gross). There’s also an organisation called Ixcacao in the Toledo village of San Felipe, where apparently tourists can make their own chocolate bars…
There’s even a Chocolate Festival, held every May in Punta Gorda, Toledo’s main town, and devoted to all things cacao, where you can sample the finished products, and buy everything from cocoa powder to cocoa nibs (crunchy pieces of roasted cocoa bean) to dried, pressed balls of ground cacao (which resemble elephant droppings, but which are considerably tastier).
In Cotton Tree’s astonishingly-small factory in PG town, I take a quick tour of the process from bean to bar. And it’s long and labour-intensive (there’s a week’s worth of harvesting, drying, and fermenting, before the beans even get in the factory). They have an oven for roasting (like coffee, this improves the flavour). In true Belizean make-do-and-mend style, the mill for breaking up the beans is powered by an electric hand drill, and the beans are then pulverised into cocoa liquor using an old fruit juicer! After separating the cocoa liquor into cocoa butter (the liquid) and cocoa powder (the solid), they then have to put the two back together again in specific amounts (along with ingredients like sugar and milk powder), to make the basis of the final bar. But it’s still not finished – there’s conching, where a machine with rollers continually grinds the chocolate into a fine paste with no granules (at this point, the room is filled with an intense smell, and where it not for the dangerous-looking moving parts, I would happily do an Augustus Gloop and stick my face into the machine). And finally there’s tempering, where the chocolate is cooled under controlled temperatures so it solidifies properly (and more importantly, so it stays solid at room temperature – which in Belize, can be considerably warm). Like many other everyday products I regularly consume, I’m amazed by just how much work goes into a simple-looking thing.
And what tour would be complete without a free sample (or, in my case, six)? Of particular note, the small dark chocolate barrels filled with Belizean One Barrel Rum. At 70% cacao, the dark chocolate isn’t sweet at all, and has an almost-bitter, coffee-like taste – but it’s many times tastier than your average sugar-and-fat-filled Mars or Snickers bar…
So if you’re ever in Belize, make sure you sample some local chocolate. And if not, get a taste of Belizean cacao in the form of a bar of Green & Black’s Maya Gold. ¡Buen Provecho!