I’m what you might call a chocolate obsessive. My pantry is filled with bars from bean-to-bar chocolate makers like Raaka, Askinosie, Dandelion, and Goodnow Farms, and I often splurge on delicate truffles in unique flavor concoctions from boutiques like Stick With Me Sweets in New York City and Bon Bon Bon in Detroit. On trips to chocolate havens like Belgium, Switzerland, Paris, Mexico, and Costa Rica I always allow ample time for chocolate shop visiting and inevitably haul home several edible souvenirs. But somehow, even though I’ve been to many Central and South American and African countries that are known for growing excellent cacao, I had never managed to visit a cacao farm, nor see the chocolate making process done by hand, from start to finish.
So when I began planning my trip to Belize at the end of last year, I knew a cacao farm visit was a must. But I didn’t want to visit a cheesy operation meant for tourists that wouldn’t show me the inner workings of an authentic Mayan cacao farm. How would I know what was a tourist trap and what was real?
Coincidentally, a few weeks before my trip, I found myself at Salon du Chocolat in New York, a chocolate trade fair open to the public that’s filled with chocolate crafters sharing their creations. Determined to find out where some of my favorite chocolate makers sourced their cacao from in Belize, I struck up a conversation with Greg D’Alessandre, the head chocolate sourcer for Dandelion Chocolate, which is based in San Francisco and focuses on single-origin bars using beans from across the globe, including Belize. He told me that when he is sourcing cacao beans, he looks for three things: great people, great flavor, and great consistency. For Dandelion’s Belize bar, Greg sources from the Maya Mountain Co-op in the Toledo district of Belize and suggested I visit Eladio Pop’s Agouti Cacao Farm, one of the farms that sells beans to the co-op.
“We’ve been working with them for years and we bring guests to visit them every year as well,” said Greg, referring to the trips Dandelion curates and leads each year to some of their favorite cacao sourcing destinations. “They make some of the best-tasting beans in the world. It is always one of our most popular bars, as it has a beautiful balance of tropical fruit flavors and some deep, chocolate-y notes underneath.” As I tasted a sample of Dandelion’s Maya Mountain Belize 70 percent bar, I sensed a deep fruitiness that balanced the earthier notes of the chocolate in a sublime way.
Listening to Greg describe Eladio’s farm sealed the deal for me—I knew I would get to experience a traditional, working cacao farm.
“After visiting Eladio’s farm, you can’t help but to fall in love with cacao,” Greg told me. “In fact, Eladio’s farm was the very first cacao farm I ever saw and Maya Mountain was the first fermentary. Since that moment eight years ago, I’ve seen hundreds of farms across dozens of countries, but Belize is still special and unique to me."
Several weeks later, I found myself awakening to bird caws amid the jungle trees at the Copal Tree Lodge in Punta Gorda, in the southern part of Belize in the Toledo district. After a quick outdoor shower where I looked out on the treetops as I washed, I grabbed a strong cup of Belizean coffee from the lobby and introduced myself to Bruno Kuppinger, the owner of Toledo Cave & Adventure Tours, who was waiting outside. Bruno is an award winning tour guide originally from Germany who has been living in Belize for more than 20 years. He’s the resident English (and German) speaking expert of the Toledo region and often brings visitors to Eladio Pop’s farm.
We drove west along leaf-covered dusty roads, spotting colorful birds and lizards along the way, until we arrived in the tiny village of San Pedro Columbia about 30 minutes later.
Our truck was met by several young men and boys, who turned out to be a few Eladio’s sons and grandsons. Eladio, who is 65 years old and has 15 children, had twisted his ankle recently and would be unable to lead the tour, but we were told we would meet him later. Instead, his son Feliciano led us through the farm. But instead of neat rows of crops, I soon found myself tramping through a jungle, stopping every few minutes to take a bite out of a leaf or fruit that Feliciano or Bruno picked. There were spicy allspice leaves, juicy Jamaican limes, coconuts, ginger, mini bananas, and jipijapa, a tall grasslike plant with edible roots that are suitably refreshing (locals use the grass leaves to weave baskets). Mahogany and cedar trees towered overhead (Belizeans are known for their expert wood carving). Turns out, cacao trees appreciate a mixture of sunlight and shade, with a delicate amount of airflow, so Eladio had planted his organic jungle farm to create the optimal cacao-growing environment.
The cacao fruit, which grows on small trees scattered throughout the acres of jungle (though Feliciano seemed to know exactly where they are all located), is about the size of a small, skinny football, and ranges in color from green (unripe) to yellow, orange, and red. When we reached our first cacao tree, I waited with bated breath as Feliciano pulled a large fruit with its hard outer shell from the tree. He then unsheathed his machete from the leather case strung across his chest and hacked off the top of the pod, revealing a thick wall surrounding a tower of fleshy white lobes stacked on top of each other.
He thrust the open fruit toward me and encouraged me to grab a lobe or three. I somehow thought the fruit would taste like chocolate, but of course it didn’t—cacao comes from the seeds, not the flesh. The juicy pulp that surrounds the seed tastes like a cross between citrus, mango, and a cherimoya, but if you bite into the seed you’ll get a burst of raw, bitter cacao. After trying one seed, I mostly spit them out after I sucked the sweet, tangy flesh off of them. Feliciano also had me try a different cacao variety with an orange flesh, called Theobrama Bicolor (as opposed to Theobrama cacao), which was actually sweeter but its seeds are thought to produce a lower quality chocolate.
Eventually, we made our way back to Eladio’s homestead, a series of concrete buildings with thatched roofs. We were invited to sit down for lunch cooked by Eladio’s wife, which consisted of roasted chicken with rice and red beans with coconut milk, coco yam, pumpkin, chayote squash, and fresh yellow corn tortillas. A spicy sauce made of habanero peppers, cilantro, and lime juice was addictive.
After lunch, I finally met the man himself, who was lounging in a hammock, with a well-worn copy of a Bible by his side. He took over the farm from his grandfather at age 14 and slowly began to experiment with organic methods, eschewing the pesticides that some of his neighbors used.
“I got to see what happens when you work together with your environment,” Eladio said. “The land is so important to me; I don’t use any fertilizer and I just maintain it with natural mulch. I started with mango, then bananas, then cacao. It gave me purpose. It’s not easy; it takes a lot of patience and a lot of love.”
After lunch, I made my way to a pavilion where Victoria, one of Eladio’s daughter-in-laws, waited in front of piles of fermenting cacao beans. The family picks each cacao fruit and removes the seeds by hand. After being left to ferment for several weeks, they sell the bulk of them to the Maya Mountain Co-op, which supplies Dandelion Chocolate, as well as other craft chocolate makers like Taza Chocolate in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate in Eureka, California.
The family reserves some beans for themselves, which are then roasted over an open fire. Eladio and his family use only traditional Mayan methods to make their chocolate, and unlike the machines used even in craft chocolate factories, everything here is done by hand.
First, Victoria demonstrated how the roasted beans are crushed to crack open their shells using an oblong tool similar to a rolling pin but made from local volcanic rock. I tried my hand at it and found it to be hard work that was slow going—at least for me. Victoria quickly managed to crush a large amount with a few flicks of her wrist. As the air filled with an intense, chocolate-y aroma, she then winnowed the husks away, leaving tiny cacao nibs. Next, she piled a small mound of nibs onto a slanted mini table on short legs made from volcanic rock, called a metate, sort of like a flat version of a mortar bowl from a mortar and pestle. She took up the volcanic rock roller, called a mano, and began to roll over the nibs. Soon, the aroma was even more intense and the beans slowly but surely formed first a rough paste and eventually a smooth and silky liquid.
Before mixing it with some boiling water to create traditional Mayan hot chocolate, she gave me some to taste on its own. Fresh chocolate is a beautiful thing, and I rolled the buttery liquid slowly around my mouth, not wanting to swallow it and end the fruity, chocolate-y sensation lighting up my taste buds. As I sipped the hot chocolate (first plain and then with additions like milk, cinnamon, honey, and chili pepper) I had a glimmer of realization as to why the Mayan kings had reserved this labor intensive treat for themselves.
Before we left, Victoria brought out a small tub of silver and gold foil wrapped bars. There were no fancy wrappers, and the labels were scrawled on them with red marker, indicating if they had add-in like coconut or chilies. At $5 a pop, they were more than worth it, and I bought several to bring back home with me. Now, every time I eat a chocolate bar, I remember the original cacao fruit and marvel once more how this velvety treat came from that juicy produce.