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...

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