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Sharing the Experience – IXCACAO


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.

Plate of Nibs

Plate of Nibs

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.

Young Cacao Pod

Young Cacao Pod

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.

Cacao Beans

Cacao Beans

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.

Squeezing Cane

Squeezing Cane

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.

Cane Syrup

Cane Syrup

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 wendy@belizepropertycenter.com.

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Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Flora and Fauna

 

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CACAO—From Bean to Yum


Cotton Tree Chocolate is a little shop on Front Street, in downtown Punta Gorda where the visitor will find chocolate delights beyond the usual edible treats. But before I introduce you to these treats, let me tell you how Cotton Tree Chocolate does their “stuff”.

My initial visit to the shop was scheduled for 9:00 on a Friday morning.  I was to meet with the shop owner/manager to go through the chocolate processing method but when I got there the hostess, Juli, was already conducting a tour for visitors to the Punta Gorda area.  So I stood back and just watched.  This particular group was from the United States, and they were at the tail ends of their vacation so what a good time to visit a chocolate shop.  Lucky people back home will be on the receiving end of delicious treats.  The group was taken through the steps of the chocolate processing method from beans to final product.

Cotton Tree Chocolate buys its chocolate from the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, a cooperative for cacao farmers, in the form of fermented and dried beans.  Once the beans are dried the husks can be removed and this is done with a grinding process that is generally done here when the weather is very still.

The grinding process removes the outer husks and leaves behind pieces of cacao bean known as nibs.  These nibs are very light and can blow away—hence the need to grind on a still day.

Then the staff at Cotton Tree Chocolate use a secret tool for separating the nibs from the outer husks—a hair dryer. This blows the husks away leaving the nibs.  The nibs are what get processed into sweet edible chocolate.

The next step in the Cotton Tree Chocolate process is to take some of those nibs and put them through an oil press.

This removes the cocoa butter from chocolate, leaving behind a cocoa powder, which can be sold on its own, and a cocoa liquor (not alcoholic).  The rest of the nibs are put through a grinder to make a chocolate paste.

To make chocolate, nibs, chocolate paste, cacao butter, vanilla bean and sugar are mixed together in a conch.

The conch is essentially a mixing vat with grinding stones inside that grind the mixture to a smooth, liquidy chocolate sweetness.  This makes dark chocolate.  In order to make milk chocolate, milk powder is added to the mixture.  The process of grinding takes 3 days to make the mixture completely smooth.

Next, the chocolate undergoes a process called tempering.  The purpose of this process is to ensure that the chocolate has a uniform sheen and a crisp bite to it.  When chocolate snaps it is tempered properly.  Some chocolatiers use the manual method of tempering which involves heating up and cooling the chocolate to very specific temperatures.  At Cotton Tree Chocolate, the chocolatiers use an electronic machine to perform the tempering process.

After tempering the chocolate is ready to be poured into moulds.  Some of the nibs can be used to decorate the bars of chocolate and to add more chocolate flavour.  Mint can be added as well for a minty chocolate.

When the bars have set they are wrapped by hand into wrappers made for Cotton Tree Chocolate to be sold in the shop/factory.  On display you can find, chocolate lip balm, chocolate soap, earrings made from cacao beans as well as different varieties of chocolate bars.

The chocolate bars that are made at Cotton Tree Chocolate have a range of between 40% and 70% cacao butter.

Some of the products that are manufactured with cacao by various companies around the Toledo District include soap, lip balm, earrings (made with the bean) and are available for purchase at Cotton Tree Chocolate.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Toledo District at Work

 

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2012 Cacao Festival


 2012, known as the year of the Maya, is expected to be a year of cultural events throughout the country of Belize.  In the Toledo District, where the Maya comprise approximately 50% of the population it will be no different.  This year, in particular, the Cacao Fest organizers have ensured that the festival committee involves the local Maya people.

The Cacao Festival is embarking on its 6th annual event and is hoping that this year will be at least as well-attended as the previous years have been.  The goal of the Cacao Festival is to raise awareness of the Toledo District with the result of that goal being improved lives of the local people through increased tourism and its ripple effects.

This year the Cacao Festival will run over three dates beginning in the evening of Friday May 18, 2012.  There will be day long events and activities over Saturday May 19 and Sunday May 20.  With Monday May 21 being a national holiday, Victoria Day, the revellers can fully participate in the events and spend the holiday recovering.

Starting the 2012 Cacao Festival will be a talk given by Dr. Jaime Awe.  He will be talking about the Maya Calendar 2012 and it will be presented at 2:00 p.m. at the TCGA conference room on Main Street.

Then we move to the culinary event of the day—the Wine and Chocolate Fest.  Same as last year, the event will be held at The Coral House Inn, hosted by Darla and Rick Mallory.  The evening will be spent tasting wines and chocolate hors d’oeuvres.  The actual menu is kept secret until the evening itself but past menus have included small tamales with chocolate flakes.  So be sure to expect more interesting varieties of local Maya foods with chocolate influences.

As well, there will be musical entertainment of a jazz persuasion along with a solo musical presentation, by TumulKin Center of Learning Marimba Boys and Harp Music by Florencio Mes. Present will be local chocolate artisans and connoisseurs presenting their particular lines of chocolate.  Included are Kakaw Chocolate, Goss Chocolate, Cotton Tree Chocolate, Cyrilla’s Chocolate and others.

Last year the attendance reached 350 who enjoyed this interesting combination of “sinful” treats.  Of course, true chocolate connoisseurs know that real chocolate is not “sinful”, just delicious!

Saturday, May 19

The events on Saturday are structured to promote the Toledo District’s  food and crafts, through culture and harmony.

The Saturday is set to take advantage of bus and market day.  Even though the open-air market is  open several days a week, the Saturday is the busiest day.  Eight or ten buses  filled with villagers from surrounding villages come to town to sell their food and crafts at the market.    Front Street will be closed to vehicular traffic to make room for participating vendors who have paid for a booth to be active participants in the food fest.

There will be 6 different ethic groups represented at the food fair—Maya, Garifuna, East Indian, Mestizo, Kriol and Mennonites.  Part of the emphasis this year for the vendors will be working the booth with a green attitude—ensure garbage is placed in appropriate receptacles, natural materials are used to decorate the booth and preferably the booth holders will be able to demonstrate the process involved in the making of their particular craft.  In order to please repeat visitors the vendors are encouraged to create and demonstrate new recipes and crafts each year.

As well, during the daytime there will be events titled Cacao for Kids, Sea Toledo Marine, Cacao Trail Tours.

Cacao for Kids is a scheduled fun-time for children.  There will be short documentaries presented on how chocolate is made, from the perspective of a cacao farmer.  The Toledo Cacao Growers Association building will be used as a cacao market presenting how cacao was used as a currency for bartering or trade.

The Sea Toledo Marine is intended to give everybody a chance to appreciate the beautiful coastal waters of Toledo.

Cacao Trail Tours was first promoted by Toledo Cacao Growers Association where visitors have an opportunity to visit the farms involved in the cacao trade.  T.I.D.E., Cotton Tree Lodge, and Belcampo Lodge have been participants in the past.

On Saturday evening the Cacao Festival turns its attention to the adults of the crowd.  There is a variety of music planned, from jazz to Garifuna to Caribbean featuring Toledo’s locals like Lila Vernon, and District guests such as the New Rebels and a special Maya presentation by Palenque Rojo of Chiapas, Mexico   There are several restaurants scheduled to participate and each will be presenting a different flavour, according to their own specialty.  Fireworks are expected to be part of the concert evening this year as well.

Sunday, May 20

Day 3 of the Cacao Festival is scheduled as a day of culture, with specific focus on the Maya, and is set with the backdrop of the Lubaantun archaeological reserve.  The atmosphere is expected to be subdued, respectful; keeping in mind the location which was used as a sacred Maya reserve.

Booths will be set up at the site, to promote foods, arts and crafts of the district.  The activities of the day will focus on Maya history.  This will unfold through a series of talks and tours of the archaeological reserve as well as in the form of the Deer Dance and a presentation by Palenque Rojo of Chiapas Mexico.

At various times throughout the day there will be live presentations with a renowned archaeologist and during the time between the presentations the participants can sit on blankets and enjoy the music or visit the booths.  Or take in the local nature directly.

The closing activities are being held as a secret this year, but they are expected to be quite entertaining.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2012 in Toledo District at Work

 

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First Cacao Farm Tour


Last week I had my first tour of a cacao farm.  I loved it.   I visited Cyrila’s Chocolate, a local chocolate producing farm approximately 10 miles or so outside Punta Gorda.  Juan Cho is the current manager, proprietor, operator of Cyrila’s Chocolate.  Together with his wife Abelina and their two children, Henry and Lucresha, they run the only Maya Chocolate producing operation in the area.

Listening to Juan speak of his heritage, his culture, his family, it was easy to see the pride this individual holds for his Maya roots.  Juan introduced me to  the Maya as he used the words to tell me about his family  history.  One of the first words he spoke to me was K`ulu’ba`ambilat, which means “welcome” in Maya Kekchi.

During the first hour or so while Juan Cho was explaining his vision of the business, his wife Abelina Cho  was performing hostess duties.  She brought out 2 plates of chocolate with different varieties on each plate.  The first plate had chocolate pieces that were 80% cacao.  Tasty, not bitter, sweetened with natural cane sugar, which is grown on another farm owned by the Cho family.  The second plate had samples that were 75% cacao, mixed with cane sugar, cacao nibs and milk.  The nibs add a crunchy texture and contributes additionally to the chocolate flavour.  (On a side note, Juan referred to his wife as “The Chocolate Princess.”)

Also, while we were chatting about the history of Cyrila’s Chocolate, Abelina brought us a pot of chocolate drink.  The mixture was just cacao and water, unsweetened.  The traditional method for serving is to use a calabash cup.  The flavour was quite interesting as the calabash cup seemed to infuse an earthy taste to the chocolate.  Sugar is not generally added as the traditional chocolate drink included hot red pepper for additional flavour.  The Mayan word for the chili pepper drink is Ku-ku.

Next came time for the demonstration of making chocolate using the traditional tools.  The Mano and Metate are used to grind the fermented, roasted partially ground cacao beans into a chocolate paste.  These tools can be compared to a mortar and pestle in function.  The form is different as the metate is a horizontal tray upon which, through a specific technique, the beans and nibs are crushed to make the chocolate paste.  At Cyrila’s Farm the mano and metate is made from basalt, a volcanic stone material that has been handed down through the generations.

Three miles from the farm down more interestingly mother nature carved roads are the cacao fields.  Cyrila’s Chocolate owns 60 acres of jungle with 5 acres used for cacao.  When we arrived at the cacao field, Juan proceeded to explain the 3 main types of cacao pods that are in production. He picked a pod from a tree, and against a second pod picked by myself, he smacked them together to open one.  Cacao does not end up the way it starts and the way it looks is so completely different from what you would expect.  Juan encouraged me to sample one of the beans from inside the pods.  All I can say is interesting.  Doesn’t taste much like chocolate at all.  There is a white milky substance surrounding each bean and this substance has a citrusy, or mango-like flavour.  Not chocolate at all.  The cacao beans are approximately the size of an almond.  After sucking on the cacao bean Juan encouraged me to bite it.  Again, the bean doesn’t taste like chocolate at all.  It is obviously the manufacturing process of fermenting, and roasting the beans that produces the flavour we have come to know and love.

After the tour of the fields was complete we went back to the farm where The Chocolate Princess was preparing lunch for us.  While we waited for the main dish she served fresh pineapple.  Lunch consisted of Chicken Mole (pronounced molay), coleslaw and flour tortillas.  Chicken Mole translates into Chocolate Chicken and it was delicious.  A combination of garlic, onion, red and green sweet pepper, chili pepper, chicken and chocolate.  One minute my mouth was on fire, the next minute it was saying this is sweet and the next it was saying give me more.

We talked a bit more about life in general, enjoyed some fresh-squeezed orange juice and soon it was time to leave.  My impression of the 1/2 day I spent with Juan and his family—WOW!

You can find Cyrila’s Chocolate online at http://www.ecomayachocolate.com

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2012 in Toledo District at Work

 

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