This week, February 4, 2013, I had the pleasant responsibility to show my husband some of what I love about the Toledo District, here in Belize. We visited Cyrila’s Chocolate, now known as IXCACAO, a business run by a delightful husband and wife team, Juan and Abelina Cho.
Arrangements were very easy to make. I contacted Juan via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Ixcacao) and he replied within a short period of time to discuss the details with me. After all the plans were arranged I was pretty excited to go with Bob and to see his reaction. I remember mine from a year ago and even wrote about it in the local tourism paper called the Toledo Howler. My closing comments when I left was “Wow” so of course I was eager to see my husband’s reaction too. Our agenda was to meet with Abelina, who has now been dubbed the Chocolate Queen, a promotion from the Chocolate Princess, for lunch, an overview of the process, and then a tour of the farm where the products are grown.
Abelina prepared chicken mole (pronounced molay), curried rice, black beans, boiled plantain, mashed yam, fresh hot chocolate made from local grown beans and for dessert we tasted a sampling of the chocolates produced at IXCACAO. Portion size for the meal was fine as it was a self-serve setting. He loved the plantains, “very good” the chicken wasn’t overly spicy, and overall he quite enjoyed it. The chocolate dessert was a big hit. The hot chocolate was unsweetened and he tried it that way just for the experience. Eating or drinking chocolate without sugar isn’t for everybody and it may be an acquired taste but it definitely is something to try.
Next on the agenda was the overview of the chocolate making process, both historically and now. Abelina started out with roasting some beans that had already been fermented but there was a skin on the beans, similar to that of peanuts, which needed to be removed. She brought a plate to us to remove this skin and to break up the beans. The beans broke pretty easily into smaller pieces called nibs.
It was these nibs that we ground up into chocolate using a mano and metate, a tool used historically for the grinding of chocolate. In older days chocolate was used by the Maya for ceremonial purposes and not as an everyday sweet and in this way the mano and metate process would be efficient. It took a while for the little nibs to be crushed into a fine paste that could be processed further. We each took turns crushing the nibs and then Abelina took over to make the paste even smoother. When it was pretty smooth we opted to have unsweetened dark chocolate treats, but I would guess that it is at this stage the sugar would be added if sweetened chocolate was desired. After about 10 minutes in the refrigerator the chocolate had set up and we were able to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Because the chocolate wasn’t perfectly smooth our chocolate had texture from the tiny bits of nibs that remained in it. My husband thoroughly enjoyed learning about the process and has a greater appreciation for the amount of work and processing that goes into making a good quality chocolate bar.
The next phase of our day was a tour of the farm where the cacao is grown. Abelina and Juan also grow ginger and sugar cane, both of which are used to flavour the chocolate. Trekking through the jungle, up into the hills that surround Punta Gorda, climbing and climbing, we got a bit of a workout. When the trees opened up we could see for miles around us, over the top of the jungle, what a vista! Bob was rendered speechless with the view. On the way up Abelina chose a cacao pod for us to open to see the beans in their natural state. It’s not what you would expect, I’m sure…. In the picture to the left are the beans from inside the cacao pod. The white substance that surrounds the beans is edible and tastes like so many of the fruits that are grown in the area – pineapple, mango, citrusy, and this is quite a surprise because there is no hint of chocolate flavouring at all. The chocolate flavour comes out after the fermentation/roasting process has been completed.
At the top of the hill was our destination – the sugar cane pressing machine. Abelina took her machete and cut down several stalks of sugar cane, peeled it and gave us a small piece to taste in its natural state. Sugar cane eaten this way is good but the best (in my mind) was to come. Abelina took the rest of the stalks that she had chopped and put them through a press to squeeze to release the cane juice. This was good, and yes it was as sweet as you might expect. I had my water and lime with me and poured some of the sugar cane juice into my bottle. This was a tasty, tasty treat.
And we were both surprised at how much cane juice came from a stalk of sugar cane. The next step in the process is to carry the buckets of cane juice back down the hill to where Juan and Abelina refine the cane juice to remove much of the water in order to use it for sweetening the chocolate.
The whole tour took approximately 4 hours beginning with lunch and finishing with the hike down the hill at the farm. What an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. And I can tell you, my husband enjoyed the experience as much as I did.
This is just one of the activities that are available in the Toledo District that you can enjoy on a regular basis when you make Belize a permanent destination. For more information contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.