Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Maya Mountain Cacao Visit - Belize

Maya Mountain Cacao
April 2013 Visit

While in Belize this past week, I took a trip to Maya Mountain Cacao, adjacent to the Cotton Tree Lodge, with Belcampo Lodge (Punta Gorda) staff.

Several highly regarded craft chocolate makers in North America and Europe have made bars with cacao from this area (the Toledo District of Southern Belize). Maya Mountain Cacao sources premium beans from local cacao farmers and focuses on quality fermentation and drying of cacao beans. These beans are then sent to chocolate makers.

During our visit, we saw different shades of brown beans (all purple in the middle when cut in half) that had been fermented carefully in horizontal wooden boxes for the required number of days, then sun-dried on a tarp on the ground and under covered, solar drying areas. Beans were segregated in groups/batches as they dried. The fermentation area smelled a bit like a winery (a pleasant yeasty, wine aromas).

Two Maya women were hard at work helping to sort and grade the beans. Once beans were dried and sorted, they were packed in bags (large plastic and burlap sacks) and sent to (or picked up by) chocolate makers, who will roast, winnow and grind them into dark, rich paste -- that will eventually be made into chocolate bars.

Seneca Klassen, a cacao grower and chocolate maker from Hawaii, observed that Maya Mountain Cacao staff seemed to be taking extra steps to sort, grade and ensure that undesirable particles, broken pieces and twig bits were being removed -- steps that may or may not happen to this degree in different countries, especially if farmers are paid by the pound for their harvest.

Thank you to everyone at Maya Mountain Cacao and Belcampo for the tour. Sorry to have missed meeting you Emily (Stone); maybe next time!

Toledo Cacao Growers Association
There are a few different options for cacao farmers to get their beans to market in Southern Belize. Maya Mountain Cacao is one. I also made a very quick stop at the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA) in Punta Gorda.

According to the man I spoke to at TCGA -- who was very kind to show me their holding and weighing area for cacao beans when I dropped by -- almost 500 farmers regularly bring cacao beans to sell to this non-profit organization. Beans are weighed and inspected as part of this process. Local Belize chocolate makers that buy beans from TCGA include Cotton Tree Chocolate (Punta Gorda), Goss Chocolate (Placencia), Kakaw Chocolate (San Pedro), and Wangla Chocolate.

Cotton Trees and Cocoa Nibs - April 30, 2013

Chocolate of the Day: 

Cotton Tree Chocolate
Cocoa Nib Crunch (bar)
Calories: 183 calories for 1/3 bar
Cost: $15.00 Belize dollars ($7.50 US Dollars)
Purchased from: Advance Tees shop in Belize International Airport, Belize City, Belize

This week I'm enjoying chocolate brought home from Belize, including today's sweet, milk chocolate (46% cacao) Cocoa Nib Crunch bar from Cotton Tree Chocolate (Punta Gorda, Belize). My favorite part: the nibs - packed with earthy, unsweetened chocolatey flavor.

This was the first chocolate brand/bar that I saw in Belize. I snapped one up at a shop in the Belize International Airport within an hour of arriving -- just in case I might not see it again. However, I needn't have worried, as I was on my way to the Toledo District in Southern Belize -- known for its cacao farms and chocolate.

Later in the week, I had the privilege of visiting the Cotton Tree Chocolate factory store in Punta Gorda town (a few miles from where I was staying, at the Belcampo Lodge and Farm). And I bought more bars after seeing chocolate made there. (Thanks again to Juli for the tour.)

Cotton Trees and Cacao
When I first arrived in Belize, I noticed strips of leather-like bark with fluffy, cream-colored cottony fluff attached. I soon figured out (by looking straight up) that these had fallen from a Cotton Tree.

The Cotton Tree (also known as the Ceiba tree) is a tall tree that towers above the jungle canopy in Belize. Revered by the people, and tied to Maya legends, this tree has a massive root system (similar to a large fig or banyan tree). I hiked through undergrowth, around vines, and over limestone rocks to see the roots of one massive tree up close (see photo) while in Belize. (Thank you Desmond for leading the way.)

Cacao and Cotton Trees both grow in forested areas in Belize, and other areas of Latin America. Cacao trees grow well with some shade cover. I think if I was a cacao tree, I would feel fortunate to have some shade from a Cotton Tree.

Maya Mountain Cacao, Cotton Tree Lodge
While in Belize, I also took a brief tour of the Maya Mountain Cacao fermentation and drying operation at the Cotton Tree Lodge (both were within sight of another very large, majestic Cotton Tree).

Belcampo's first batch of chocolate made in the chocolate building of their new Agritourism facility on their property in Punta Gorda was made in part with beans from Maya Mountain Cacao.

Next post will include more on this tour...

Monday, April 29, 2013

Cotton Tree Chocolate bars - April 29, 2013

Chocolate(s) of the Day:

Cotton Tree Chocolate
Dark Chocolate with Black Pepper (bar)
Good + - Very Good
Weight: 1.15 oz. (32.5 g.) in 1 bar
Calories: 167 calories (estimate) in 1 bar
Cost: (May vary according to location)
Purchased from: Cotton Tree Chocolate, Punta Gorda, Belize

While in Punta Gorda (Belize), I enjoyed the free chocolate tour at Cotton Tree Chocolate, where chocolate bars, cocoa mixes and teas, and other cacao-related items can also be purchased.

Trivia question: Why was Cotton Tree Chocolate store manager (Juli Puryear) holding a hair dryer? All the better to winnow (the thin, light, chaff-like skins that come off cocoa beans after roasting).

I enjoyed Cotton Tree's Dark Chocolate (70% cocoa) with Black Pepper, gluten-free bar -- with almost delicate floral, spicy black pepper notes. This bar was made with organic cocoa beans and organic cocoa butter from the Toledo District of southern Belize, an area known for pockets of fine cacao.

And I believe the pepper in today's bar was Malabar (black) pepper from the Spice Farm up the road. (Peppercorns look like strands of tiny green pearls when plucked from the vine.)

I also enjoyed a bite of a Cotton Tree (seasonal) sweet milk chocolate Cocoa Mint Crunch bar with nibs that tasted very refreshing (think high-quality, peppermint ice cream) on a warm day. Sugar was the first ingredient listed; so, the nibs pressed onto the back of the bar imparted the crunchy, earthy cacao flavor that balanced the sweet mint base.

Cotton Trees, Cotton Tree Lodge
The Cotton Tree Lodge (a sister company to Cotton Tree Chocolate) lies further inland, provides lodging, and also offers chocolate related activities. (Maya Mountain Cacao is also located adjacent to the Lodge.)

Both are represented in spirit, by the Ceiba tree, also known as the Cotton Tree. (A silhouette of this tree is shown on the Cotton Tree Chocolate's logo and packaging.)

This large majestic tree is known as the Cotton Tree in part because of the downy fluff it sheds. (Jaguars are said to raise their cubs in the folds of the cotton tree's elaborate root system.)

Today was Day #8 of Chocolate and Latin America Theme Week.

Agouti Cacao Farm - April 28, 2013

Chocolate of the Day: 

Agouti Cacao Farm
Chocolate with Sesame
(and Coconut Tart with cacao nibs and ginger)
Good +
Weight: 2 oz. (56 g.) approximate amount I ate
Calories: 290 calories (guesstimate) for squares I ate
Cost: (may vary, not available in stores)
Purchased from: Agouti Cacao Farm, San Pedro Columbia Village, Belize

It was impossible to travel to Belize this past week without wanting to learn more about the Maya and native peoples who have used cacao for centuries.

I was fortunate to have visited Agouti* Cacao Farm in San Pedro de Colombia Village (in the Toledo District of Southern Belize, within sight of the historic Mayan site of Lubaantun). This tour was arranged through Belcampo Lodge in Punta Gorda, Belize).

It was wonderful to be able to walk through cacao and fruit trees and see corn drying, with Feliciano Pop; and to receive a traditional chocolate making demonstration from Adalia. Both Feliciano and Adalia are children of Mayan farmer, Eladio Pop, who was featured in the 2011 documentary "The Chocolate Farmer" directed by Rohan Fernando.) I also spoke briefly to Eladio Pop, who was delightful, wise, and very busy with his work.

*Agouti (a large, brown rodent, similar to a rabbit, but with tiny ears), a type of woodpecker, and squirrels are some of the small animals that might nibble on cacao pods (fruit) growing on the cacao trees. Feliciano also mentioned he had seen a gray fox sniffing about the pile of dried corn, which I was delighted to hear -- having spotted gray foxes in the San Francisco Baylands near where I live. (However, no record of fox liking cacao that I know of.)

Traditional Chocolate Making

Adalia roasted (unfermented) cacao beans (and allspice) on a traditional comal (hot surface over a fire), and then winnowed the roasted beans using a woven basket -- allowing the wind to carry away the lighter, chaff-like shells/skins from the beans. The fire-roasting resulting in a very faint smoky aroma in the resulting cocoa paste (stoneground by hand).

The resulting drinking chocolate was lightly sweetened with honey and a little water, stirred, and served in half gourd shells. Adalia told us that older women in the village make the chocolate for weddings.

Adalia also served us homemade sweets -- cocoa paste that was combined with sesame seeds and pressed and cut into squares. Adalia also made a coconut tart, that was made with pressed, shredded coconut (perhaps sweetened with honey), cocoa nibs and a bit of shredded ginger. These chocolate/sweet items were wrapped in foil and would be good for a few days.

We later enjoyed combining the chocolate and coconut flavors together; the darker cocoa balancing out the sweeter coconut.

Thank you for the Agouti Cacao Farm and family, and for all those at Belcampo (and at the airport) for chocolate tasting help!

Today was Day #7 of Chocolate and Latin America Theme Week.

Belcampo Chocolate Truffles - April 27, 2013

Chocolate of the Day: 

Belcampo Lodge
Chocolate Truffle with Nibs
Very Good
Weight: .54 oz. (15.28 g.) (estimate) for 1 truffle
Calories: 80 calories (estimate) for 1 truffle
Cost: N/A - part of package
Purchased from: Belcampo Lodge and Farm, Punta Gorda, Belize

Yesterday, I wrote about Belcampo Mayan Chocolate Pudding, made from scratch, at Belcampo Lodge (Punta Gorda, Belize). This favorite chocolate dessert with a touch of heat, as well as today's featured (brand new) Belcampo chocolate truffles, were special for two different reasons.

First the chocolate for the pudding and truffles was made all in one country (Belize) -- from farm to table. The cocoa beans were grown and fermented within several miles/kilometers of Belcampo Lodge and Farm.

For this first batch, cocoa beans were purchased and transported to a chocolate building at Belcampo's new Agritourism facility to create finished chocolate (recently made possible by new equipment installed on-site at Belcampo). With this facility, Belcampo joins a other local chocolate makers in the Toledo District (where many fine beans are grown in southern Belize). Belcampo is also growing cacao for future production.

With the exception of beans grown in the State of Hawaii, the supply chain for U.S. chocolate makers is usually geographically far flung. Cacao farmers grow beans in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, or other regions within 20 degrees of the equator; whereas chocolate makers and chocolatiers (with sophisticated processing equipment) live in cooler climates (e.g. on the U.S. mainland, or in Europe).

Journey to the Center of Chocolate
Making chocolate is a journey. Today's Belcampo truffles with cacao nibs (pieces of bean) were made using chocolate fresh from Belcampo's new roaster, winnower, concher and tempering machines. (While craft chocolate making is similar to small batch coffee making, there are more steps involved after fermenting and roasting with chocolate.)

Having this production equipment (integrated and local) enables more direct feedback between farmers and makers -- and facilitates production of several cocoa-related end products, including cocoa nibs and the cocoa mass that might be used, with fresh cream, for a ganache (truffle filling). The Belcampo team was experimenting with roast and flavor profiles with the first few pilot batches.

It was an exciting time to be there for the first chocolate making and tasting in the new facility.

Triple Threat Truffles - A Star is Born
Today's delicious rolled truffles were triply good, a look into all that's possible with the cacao bean. A fresh cream, soft, sweet chocolate ganache center was covered with a generous coating of dark chocolate, and then coated in fresh, crunchy, earthy tasting cacao nibs (pieces of cocoa bean).

Given the tropical climate, these truffles were perfect served slightly chilled.

Today was Day #6 of Chocolate and Latin America Theme Week.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mayan Chocolate Pudding - April 26, 2013

Chocolate of the Day:

Belcampo Lodge
Mayan Chocolate Pudding
Very Good
Weight: N/A - 1 serving
Calories: unknown
Cost: N/A part of package
Purchased from: Belcampo Lodge and Farm, Punta Gorda, Belize

Watching a trained chef whip up a chocolate dessert is always a treat. Today's creamy, flavorful Mayan Chocolate Pudding was prepared by Belcampo Lodge's head chef and general manager, Mara Jernigan.

Belcampo Lodge is nestled in a lush jungle, in the Toledo District of southern Belize. The Toledo region is to cacao in Belize what Napa is to wine in California. Belcampo (also with locations in Northern California and Uruguay) is ramping up chocolate (and coffee and rum) production as part of a new Agritourism center at their site in Belize.

The chocolate for this week's Mayan Chocolate Pudding (flavored with a touch of spice and heat) was made with the first batch of chocolate created in the "chocolate building" in this new Agritourism center. (Two other buildings in this complex will be devoted to coffee and rum.)

Mara developed the recipe for Mayan Chocolate Pudding and gave a demo of how to prepare her popular dessert, with help of staff, in the afternoon; and the finished, creamy, mousse-like pudding was served as part of the dinner menu.

Being in the jungle, does not mean doing without, especially at Belcampo, which is also part farm -- where one can obtain fresh eggs (from resident chickens); gaze at thousands of cacao trees under cultivation (for chocolate making); tour a garden area with a few spices; and in the very near future, see fields of sugar cane (primarily for rum production).

It was a treat to be at Belcampo to see the first batch of chocolate being created with new equipment in the chocolate building. Expect to see a few new chocolates and desserts available soon at Belcampo Lodge.

To be continued...

Note: Posts and photos will be delayed due to travel. However, the chocolate eating will continue.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pepitas bar - April 25, 2013

Photo: Casa de Chocolates 
Chocolate of the Day: 

Casa de Chocolates
Pepitas bar
Good +
Weight: 1 oz. (28 g.) (estimate) for 1 bar
Calories: 150 calories (estimate) for 1 bar
Cost: $ part of a 3-bar package purchase (3 mini bars for $8)
Purchased from: Casa de Chocolates, Berkeley, CA

Today was Day #4 of Chocolate and Latin America Theme Week.

Pumpkin seeds (or pepitas) are used in sauces, and in many different Latin dishes. Before hopping a plane to Belize this week, I visited Casa de Chocolates (Berkeley, CA). Their shop carried chocolates with many interesting Mexican and Latin flavors (mango with chili, mole, cajeta, etc.) -- including bars with pepitas.

Today's smaller sized "mini" Pepitas bar from Casa de Chocolates was just right for a single serving. The smooth dark (61% cacao) chocolate bar base had a pleasant, smooth, buttery melt and was topped with an attractive smattering of agave caramelized pepitas -- green, crunchy pumpkin seeds with just a hint of salt. (This bar was vegan and gluten free.)

(Thank you to the Belcampo Lodge chocolate tasters in Belize this week, for tasting help and input. Chocolate is always better when it's shared.)

Note: Posts and photos will be delayed this week due to travel. However, the daily chocolate eating will continue.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Belcampo - Belize Batch #1

A Bar Is Born - At Belcampo Belize
April 24, 2013

Being present at the start of something great is always a pleasure. And, today I had the great pleasure of witnessing the creation of a new production cycle (Batch #1) of chocolate being made, with new equipment at a new facility, at Belcampo Lodge and Farm (Punta Gorda, Belize).

Belcampo's Belize location (showcasing chocolate, rum and coffee production, with a focus on agricultural tourism) is situated in the Toledo District of Southern Belize. Toledo is to chocolate in Belize what Napa is to wine in California.

Following a short workshop and comparative tasting in the "chocolate building", cacao beans were carefully measured and poured into a roaster. Roasting times and temperatures were carefully graphed and recorded, so that optimal results could be duplicated later.

A very impressive and efficient winnowing machine got rid of the thin membrane covering the cocoa beans after roasting. (And leftover shells were ejected into a bag, ready to use as compost in the garden.)

Next, cocoa nibs were weighed and loaded into a larger machine that would grind the bean pieces into an aromatic cocoa paste, that would eventually become dark flowing, molten chocolate.

The last, and not the least, step: chocolate was put in a liquid-cooled/heated tempering machine, where it would be heated and cooled to just the right temperature to form crystals that would lock into place. All the while, humidity levels and room and water (surrounding machine) temperatures need to be monitored carefully.

When done correctly, a good temper yields chocolate bars that are solid and break with an audible snap. (Easier said than done; tempering can require some patience.)

Eventually lovely rich tasting dark chocolate bars emerged, some with fresh cacao nibs, putting chocolate on the map for Belcampo. Thank you to Seneca, Mara, Kelly, Maynard and many others who made tasting these bars possible.

Stay tuned for pictures and more details this coming week.

Note: Posts and Pictures will be delayed this week due to travel.


Mole bar - April 24, 2013

Chocolate of the Day: 

Casa de Chocolates
Mole bar
Good +
Weight: 1.445 oz. (40.85 g.) / 2.89 oz. (81.7 g.) total bar
Calories: 215 calories (estimate) for 1/2 bar
Cost: $7.00 for one bar
Purchased from: Casa de Chocolates table at the Chocolate Salon, San Francisco, CA

Today was Day #3 of Chocolate and Latin America Theme Week.

There are many variations on the ground spice blend that is mole. Most people are familiar with mole sauce that is served with chicken and other savory dishes. The deep brown version of this sauce usually contains cocoa, giving it a rich, earthy, spicy flavor.

Today's Mole dark chocolate (61% cacao) bar from Casa de Chocolates (Berkeley, CA) was made with 11 spices and chiles -- and contained almonds and pumpkin seeds. This bar was also vegan and gluten free.

This bar had a sweet, spicy kick to it that intensified toward the end. The chocolate base was smooth and not overly strong or acidic, so the spices occupied center stage with this offering.

Note: posts and photos will be delayed this week due to travel. However, the daily chocolate eating will continue.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Inca Crunch Quinoa bar - April 23, 2013

Chocolate of the Day:

Casa de Chocolates
Inca Crunch (Roasted Quinoa) bar
Good +
Weight: 1.445 oz. (40.85 g.) / 2.89 oz. (81.7 g.) total bar
Calories: 215 calories (estimate) in 1/2 bar
Cost: $7.00 for 1 bar
Purchased from: Casa de Chocolates table, at the Chocolate Salon in San Francisco, CA

Today was Day #2 of Chocolate and Latin American Theme Week.

I'm here in Belize, close to the birthplace of chocolate. So why did I bring chocolates from the San Francisco Bay Area down here with me? Three reasons.

First, this dark chocolate (61% cacao) Inca Crunch bar with roasted quinoa is from Casa de Chocolates (Berkeley, CA), a shop that specializes in Latin American themed chocolates. Second, even though carrying chocolates down here was a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle, I didn't want to risk going a single day without a new chocolate on hand.

Last, but not least, sometimes I just can't help buying extra chocolate items that catch my fancy. And such was the case when I visited Casa de Chocolates, where I found a dazzling array of Latin flavored bars and truffles right before this trip.

The Inca Crunch bar was vegan and gluten-free, and the quinoa provided a pleasant, grain-like, crunchy texture that balanced the richer, smooth dark chocolate base.

Note: posts and photos will be delayed this week due to travel. However, the chocolate eating will continue.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Maracuya truffle - April 22, 2013

Chocolate(s) of the Day: 

Casa de Chocolates
Maracuya truffle
Good + - Very Good
Weight: .38 oz. (10.75 g.) (estimate) for 1 truffle
Calories: 57 calories (estimate) for 1 truffle
Cost: $N/A - part of larger assortment box
Purchased from: Casa de Chocolates, Berkeley, CA

Welcome to the first day of Chocolate and Latin America Theme Week.

I love chocolate field trips. Today I'm embarking on a big one -- a trip to the Toledo District of Belize (an important cacao growing area in the southern part of the country).

However, as a warm up, yesterday I visited  Casa de Chocolates in Berkeley California, a shop filled with chocolate bars, truffles/filled chocolates, hot chocolate, and other dessert items -- all with a unique Latin twist. (They were also selling some organic cacao beans from Belize.)

I bought a small box of truffles, a disc-shaped Mayan calendar, some Belize beans, and three small bars. The truffles were hard to resist, with flavors like: Maracuya (coconut milk and passion fruit); Mezcal with sal de gusano; Cajeta (made with goat's milk caramel); Tamarindo; and Chipotle Caramel.

Today I'm featuring the Maracuya (passion fruit) truffle, emblazoned with a pink skull wearing a hat. This chocolate was filled with a creamy blend of coconut milk and the tart-sweet passion fruit -- a great combination of flavors. I look forward to trying more of these truffles from Casa de Chocolates next month.

Note: Posts and photos will be delayed this week, due to travel, but the chocolate eating will continue unabated.

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