September 17, 2018
San Ignacio, Belize
Did you know that in the United States, a typical American will eat their weight in chocolate about every 10 years? Fascinating, huh?
Americans, on the whole, consume 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate each year. Ladies and gents, that’s billion…with a capital B! That averages out to over 11 pounds per person each and every year. The U.S. produces more chocolate than any other country in the world, but the Swiss consume the most, followed closely by the United Kingdom. Wow!
I love chocolate. Always have, always will. But, to be honest with you, I’ve never given much thought as to where it comes from. I’ve always been aware that there was such a thing as a cacao bean, but frankly, prior to being here to Belize, I couldn’t have told you whether they grow on bushes or trees. I was choco-challenged!
So here’s a few things I’ve learned.
CAUTION: Reading further could test your diet and expand your waistline by causing excessive desires to gorge on opulent amounts of chocolate. Consider yourself forewarned.
Belize is known to be the cradle for the Cacao. Thousands of years ago dense rain forests covered much of South and Central America and wild cacao trees flourished and provided food for birds and animals. According to archaeologists, the Maya initially cultivated the cacao tree around 2000 B.C.
The legend is that the Mayan demigod King Hunahpu and his twin brother Xbalanque began farming cacao. As a side note, the two were in constant strife with other gods and were eventually burned to death and thrown into the river where they transformed themselves into catfish and lived happily for a long time. The significance of this is that cacao is considered divine in origin. (Can’t argue there.) In fact, the cacao beans were so coveted that they were used as currency and to pay taxes.
In the Mayan (and Aztec) culture the preparation of cacao involved harvesting the beans from pods, fermenting them, roasting them and then grinding them into a paste. The paste was then mixed with water to which was added chili peppers, corn and other spices and then mixed heartily into a frothy beverage. Sugar was unknown to the ancients so it was unsweetened initially and was consumed by the upper class.
Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first non-natives to experience cacao. In 1502, while moored off the coast of Honduras, Columbus encountered a group of Aztec rulers who came with “gifts” which included cloth, copper, wooden weapons and cacao beans. Having never seen anything like them, Columbus had no clue that he was holding “magic” beans. The rulers, to show Columbus what he was missing, prepared a cacao drink for him to sample. Remember, there was no sweetening, and Columbus wasn’t really impressed.
The European “aha” moment for the value of chocolate wasn’t until 1519, when the Aztec ruler Montezuma mistook a shrewder explorer, Hernan Cortez for a deity and presented him with a large load of cacao beans. This terrible error later cost the Aztecs dearly and sealed the doom of their civilization as the Spanish conquered the area. But Cortez noted that Montezuma consumed as many as 50 goblets of the frothy cacao mixture a day. The Aztecs spiked their cacao with vanilla, chili peppers and honey and the Spaniards soon were “sold” on the refreshing, satisfying and inspiring beverage. Cortez returned to Spain raving about his newly found concoction claiming, “One beaker keeps a soldier fresh for the whole day.” I’m not saying that Cortez was in any way a good guy in history, but the dude recognized what we all know today, the value of chocolate!
Mayan nobles visited Spain in 1544 and with them bore cacao beans. In 1585, the first shipment of the precious beans arrived in Seville, and chocolate officially planted its flag in Spain. By adding hot water, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and honey to the mix, they took up drinking the beverage with a fervor. And with the addition of sugar, it became all the rage in Spain. Being brilliant businessmen, the Spanish realized the commercial value of this heavenly drink and they began cultivating cacao plantations in their overseas colonies. Great fortune lay in pleasing the palate. Doh!
Soon chocolate made its way to France and Italy where romance-language speakers truly made it the food of love. Eventually it made its way across the English Channel and many cocoa houses opened in London. Much later in 1824, John Cadbury opened a coffee and tea shop in Birmingham, where he also sold hot chocolate. Anyone who has ever imbibed in a Cadbury Easter egg knows that Cadbury is one of the world’s greatest chocolatiers in history.
I could go on and on. Researching the history of chocolate (a precious member of our culinary family) is much like tracing family roots on Ancestry.com…it’s addictive! Here you’ll find an excellent timeline of how the “magic beans” made their way through history into your mouth today.
Since 2014, Ajaw Chocolate (pronounced ah-how) has provided educational tours of the family-owned cacao farm as well as hands-on traditional chocolate making sessions.
The day we visited, I learned so much. Here’s the process in brief:
Cacao beans grow on trees! (now I won’t miss that one on Jeopardy!) It takes about 3-5 years for a tree to flower and produce fruit, a pod.
2) The Cacao Pod
When a pod is cut open you’ll find the beans floating in a gooey white substance that is edible and actually very tasty.
The beans are removed from the pods and then fermented for 7-14 days, depending on the humidity. Wine and vinegar can be made from the liquid byproduct of the fermented beans. Ajaw even sells Cacao Wine! I never knew there was such a thing!
4) Soaking and Washing
After the fermenting process, the beans are soaked and washed. This is how they are shipped to chocolate manufacturers.
The beans are roasted at 150-180° for 30-40 minutes. After roasting the shell of the bean can be broken off to produce what is called the nibs. Cacao nibs are considered a super food, being rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants.
This was the coolest part of the process for us, since we were allowed to “grind like a Mayan!” The stone grinder at Ajaw is a family heirloom. I’m not sure it dates back to the ancients, but it’s pretty dang old!
It was exciting to actually get to make our own paste with the tool of the gods! And, during my daily workout, I skipped my arm exercises that day!
The freshly ground paste was put into a gourd and hot water was added. After stirring, we got to sip like a Mayan. On the first sip, I understood Columbus’ angst with the drink, but when we added honey, cinnamon and even ground chilis to the mix, I understood how this wonderful concoction got to where it is today.
When you visit the Cayo region of Belize a visit to Ajaw Chocolate is a must. Well worth it! Thank you Adrian and Elida!
Here’s the info about Ajaw Chocolate:
HOURS: 9 AM – 6 PM Daily, closed Sundays and holidays (Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Good Friday)
SESSIONS: Generally last 45 minutes
COST: $12 USD per person
EXTRAS: Chocolate, cookies, t-shirts, and wine are available for sale.