We’ve just returned from our second Chocolate 301 trip to Belize. One of our chocolate makers in attendance, Molly, recounts the trip below.
Finding my way to Punta Gorda feels something like riding a skipping rock. Two flights connect to a pouncing puddle jumper that sets me on the ground in Southern Belize, right at dusk on Valentine’s night. The moon is full, and it’s too warm for sleeves. We steer towards Cotton Tree Lodge—a jungle-wrapped lodge that sits forty five minutes inland over unpaved road.
In the morning, the pods are prolific. Until now, I’ve only seen them dried and lacquered—those brown, withered torpedoes whose seeds we rattle around for demonstration at the factory. They contrast to fresh cacao like black and white stills would to an Omnimax tour of a rainbow.
Living pods are plump, weighty, irregular. Some bottlenecking towards the end, sometimes curved, roundish, or blunted. They are warty or smooth, deep or shallow trenches running from tip to tip. They drip from the tree trunks like petrified tears, shot through with color. Around the lodge, purples and pale greens dominate. Others, more sporadic, are like striking, bleeding suns: orange, yellow, crimson. When no one is looking, I stand next to the trees, petting the pods, enthralled. (Can I take them all home? Can I build a house out of them? Can I graft them onto all the trees in America so we can dance around cracking them open, feasting on the fruity pulp and hugging the recession away?) The Maya used the beans as currency, and I daydream about what the world would be like now if we’d conserved that idea. I don’t doubt good things would come of it, the Maya really had their shit together. Screw bills and Bitcoin, let’s switch to beans.
Locked right into that trunk, they are so foreign from the trees and fruits that I know. I’m not the first to feel confused—I later learn that the Spanish, during their colonial spree, recorded a “corrected” version of cacao they’d actually seen, drawing fruit hanging from the end of the branches. It’s amusing but sad, in the way that the colonial mindset leaves so little room for accepting the unknown.
The boardwalk that snakes between the bungalows is lined with jurassic plant life: gargantuan hibiscus bushes, palms, and a monstrous, dreadlocked beast of a tree hung with streams of knobby green (“the rasta,” says Sean, the resident chef). An achiote tree sits at a joint where the boardwalk curves, ripe with furry red fruits that, pinched open, bleed a ruddy sienna dye. Annatto.
The group trickles in over the course of the day, and we meet for dinner and cocktails. The bar special is a good one—our own chocolate blended with coconut and rum. In the name of quality control, I take to sampling it repeatedly throughout the week. This turns out to be an excellent idea.
Day 2: Eladio’s Farm
“This is my heart,” says Eladio Pop, holding a split cacao pod. He flicks a pulp-swaddled seed into his mouth and rolls it around. “I’ve got fifteen children, and I feel young. Cacao has been good to me.”
As far as Belizean cacao farmers go, Eladio Pop is a notorious one. He farms 34 acres of hilly jungle in the Toledo District of Belize on a spread of land that looks too much like wilderness to be called a farm, but that’s how cacao grows best—in sunlight dappled by the jungle canopy, shouldered up against other crops in a diversified agroforestry system. Still, it looks untamable and unmanned.
Then again, Eladio is not in the business of taming. He is married to the chaos and the churning cycles of an ecosystem. He pats his chest and calls himself a “natural man,” ripping strips of palm leaf and braiding a belt when his pants begin to sag. He embodies the part of the steward, as much an element of the land’s systems as the sun or water. He gives and he takes. Some years, he leaves the allspice harvest to the birds. “We all need each other,” he says. “Why would I take more when I have enough?” Even as he rips fruits and leaves from the trees to eat, he drops the rinds and scraps where animals can get them. Even in the jungle’s late afternoon quiet, he knows he’s not eating alone.
Eladio has, in his own way, become a stalwart poster child for the ancient ways of working the land, for the preservation of that sacred human connection to the earth that continues to dwindle as industrial food systems take over, as we get drawn into our own separate, brightly lit, palm-sized worlds. On this point, he is explicit:
“This is where we come from. You are getting away from it. This is my heart, this is my soul, and it’s yours too. You just have to see it.”
Half of what he grows goes to his family. When we ask why he stopped at fifteen children, he responds: “not enough corn.” Hotels and lodges periodically send him their guests on outings, and he has been the subject of at least one documentary.
When we follow him, we follow the thrashing of his machete along a “path” that, if it even exists, is obscured by what looks to be a century’s worth of overgrown vegetation. He brings us to the mango tree he planted thirteen years ago. We wend our way through streams over hills, traversing clusters of coffee, cacao, pineapple, banana, mango, papaya, and coconut. Everything is spread out. We have space to wander, the trees have space to breath. There is no discernible order.
Eladio speaks and moves quickly, swiping at the brush and plucking edibles from the greenery for us to eat. We crunch allspice leaves in our palms, discovering a tongue-numbing affect when we chew. The “jungle coconut” is long, milky, silky, and cornlike. It is sweet, but has a mild woody, mushroomy funk to it. He slices open the stalks of palm, unsheathing long, white hearts that unravel like fruit rollups. They taste like chestnuts and artichoke hearts. Fresh corn is sweet and starchy. We bite, excited, into the bright orange flesh of Jamaican limes, instantly puckering to tears. We are not Bear Grylls, nor are we monkeys. We are chocolate people.
The anatomy of a cacao pod is fantastical. Broken open, it contains a tower of 30 to 40 pulpy seeds wrapped neatly—coblike—around a sweet and fibrous structure called the “placenta.” The pulpy seeds pinch away like cotton candy. Raw, the bean itself is bitter. But no matter, at this stage it’s the pulp we’re after: creamy and tart. Like the lovechild of lychee and sweet tarts.
What makes the pulp delicious is the same thing that makes it useful: sugar. Cacao pulp is, essentially, the alchemical muse that digs up cacao’s latent chocolate flavor. During fermentation, the sugary pulp turns into acetic acid which then penetrates the husks surrounding the cacao beans, arresting any germination, disrupting the bean’s cell structure. A combination of enzymatic activity, oxidation, and the breakdown of proteins establishes the precursors to what we know as chocolate flavor. The flavors won’t be fully expressed until roasting morphs the starches to sugars, bringing the more ephemeral notes into full bloom.
After the tour, we eat a lunch cooked by Eladio’s wife—rice, beans, coco yams, and chicken—in a hillside, open air house. Afterwards, his eldest daughter teaches us an old rite, making the cacao drink. She roasts cacao and allspice together until they are deeply toasted, grinding them down to a paste in the swooping, gritty face of a metate. She adds water slowly, and we sip bowls of the earthy, nutty stuff. The talking ceases for a moment as we all dip our faces into the rising steam of our drinks, rolling them around in the round basin of a cassava bowl. We should do this everyday, we say.
Better Quality Cacao = Better Quality of Life
Belize is the home of Maya Mountain, a small business and young social enterprise that, in the past three years, has succeeded in disrupting the cacao industry here, changing the reality of farming while producing some of our favorite beans. Part of what makes these beans good is also what makes Maya Mountain revolutionary.
Historically, being a cacao farmer in Belize means harvesting, fermenting, drying, and transporting beans on one’s own. At a Fair Trade certified cooperative, the farmer can make a small margin above the standard market price, a margin that (as mandated by the certification) must go towards “social projects” determined by the cooperative in lieu of guiding it straight into the farmers hands. In some cases, this works. But when the projects are not designed or audited well, or if the giving gets political (hello, kickbacks), farmers don’t feel the reward. Additionally, there are no stipulations regarding quality in the certification handbook. As it turns out, incentivizing quality is a highly effective shortcut to reshaping the trade system into something sustainable, responsible, and lucrative.
Enter Maya Mountain, a company custom-designed to combat the problems and pitfalls of this system. Traditionally, leaving it up to each individual farmer to process his own crop means risking inconsistency and the chance that his cacao will not be good enough to sell. Whether it is or isn’t, the farmer still has to pay to rent a truck for transport. If his cacao is good, he’ll sell it. If it’s not, he’s sunk the money on a truck and a bad crop.
Emily Stone, the 28-year-old cofounder running the show, has helped to redefine the farming framework by connecting smallholder farmers with specialty cacao buyers in the States which, in turn, brings more money to rural indigenous communities while encouraging reforestation and cacao agroforestry. It’s a tall order for a small company, but its working. And here’s how.
To curb the financial risk farmers usually incur by renting trucks to bring possibly sellable cacao to their buyer, Maya Mountain centralizes cacao processing, picking up unfermented wet beans from farmers. For the farmer, this means less work and more money (Maya Mountain pays a premium price). All the beans are then fermented and dried by a small staff at the “cacao house” (next to Cotton Tree, incidentally). This way, Maya Mountain is able to conduct intensive studies around the best processing techniques, ensuring better cacao that sells at a higher price, an influx of money that trickles straight back down to the farmer and incentivizes him to produce the highest quality cacao.
So you see, better cacao means better chocolate, but it also means a better quality of life for the farmers.
Thirty years ago, Hersheys bought up and planted an 1800-acre cacao farm a few hours down the highway from Punta Gorda. When the downturn hit, they picked up and left, leaving a sprawling, ghostly orchard land. Recently, a large Belizean citrus company bought up the land and replanted 400 acres with oranges, lemons and grapefruit. Shortly after that, the Toledo Cacao Growers’ Association took over the cacao portion, attempting to prune it back to health. Soon, the land was peppered with the bald spots of stumped trees, cut back as blanks slates for new shoots to arrive. Now, Maya Mountain has taken on the colossal project of rehabilitating the land.
The trees are planted in soldierly rows. The interior is too overgrown to bear fruit. As we ride around the land on the flatbed of a citrus truck, looking across this ocean of trees, the amount of manpower it will take strikes us as nearly incomprehensible. But they’re going to do it, and it makes sense—mining cacao from a farm this large will swell the entire country’s export by a factor of at least four. It may, in time, take over the world. And if it does, at least we’ll be well fed.
Down one of the better (but still unpaved) roads in Punta Gorda sits Belcampo—a polished experiment in agriculture and hospitality. Cross into the Belcampo grounds, and the hairy jungle combs itself out into sprawling, manicured acreage. The brush melts into neatly pruned foliage, and tilting, splintered houses melt away as right angles and clean, bright structures rise in their places.
The project is a moneyed experiment in eco-tourism, a glossy development with canopy-level views of trumpet trees and jungle life. The folks here are playing with processing a modest lot of premium commodities—sugarcane, cacao, coffee, and then some. A lot of pure Criollo cacao—a rare and especially (genetically) pure varietal—sits low beneath banana and soursop trees. An organic garden features prominently on the property, growing provisions for the kitchen and its impressive list of farm fresh cocktails. In this particular iteration of the Belcampo empire—run by the same guys behind Belcampo Meat Co., and corresponding lodges in Uruguay and California—there’s a lot going on.
Belcampo is a lodge and farm, but that’s really just the beginning. As we walk the property, corner to corner, we begin to see the wide constellation of experiments, the activity churning in the belly of this quiet corner of the country.
In the coming months and years, the staff will wrangle together a rum distillery, a coffee processing operation, and chocolate-making workshop. When we visited, five mini melangers were already running, grinding nibs into liquor. In the afternoon, we gorged on tacos (pulled pork, fish) from the chef in house, Renée Everett, and a house-squeezed coconut milk and mango cocktail. Of thing things I’ll take back to San Francisco, a rum fixation is one. Rain be damned, I like these fruity drinks.
Alessandro Mascia and Mandy Tsang emigrated to Belize fifteen years ago, and have been reaping remedies from the jungle ever since. When they moved, the couple landed in a nationalized healthcare system which, being doctors, drove them to scheme up a new living: Casa Mascia.
Casa Mascia is the brand, and booze is their trade (mostly). It might seem odd output from a pair of doctors, but making tinctures is actually a kind of brilliant repurposing of medicinal skill. Alex and Mandy’s knowledge around extraction and distillation is deep and vast, which turns out to be a fairly fun thing when you have an entire jungle at your doorstep ripe for pillaging (responsibly).
The line of goods is prolific, and we only sampled the drinkable half: think cacao or jalapeno bitters, lime or lemongrass liquor. Favorites include a balam-infused, rum-based spirit that tastes like drunken macadamia nuts, and a cacao pulp liquor that may as well be rum-soaked lychees. We spent an evening under their benevolent tutelage, drinking in their liquors and wisdom and wisecracking advice. Other products include soaps, salves, balms, bath products, and other edibles. For a taste, sign up for our next trip.
To visit cacao in Belize is to see history, crystalized. To see a thing deeply embedded in the past of a place, in the spiritual record of a people. In California, we can find our farmers at our doorsteps, we can harvest our own food. We get to bolster a sense of connection through interacting with local crops and their caretakers. When it comes to chocolate, that journey is a little farther, but it breeds a profound sense of communion to find a common love for something so far away. A different kind of gratitude for how many variables align to get something from a bitter pulpy wad worlds away to a perfect, smooth, chocolate bar. At Dandelion, we often talk about being at the front of a movement, at the wheel of a new thing. But sometimes, it feels more like we’re remembering how to make chocolate. Thousands of years ago, there was no soy lecithin, there was no milk powder. There was cacao, fire, water, and stones. As it turns out, that’s all you need. That, and maybe a little bit of sugar.