An ancient food standing the test of time.
By Caroline Oliver
While visitors flock to Belize for adventures in its vast forests, or to relax beside blue Caribbean waters, few experience one of the country’s best kept secrets: chocolate. Dating back over two and a half thousand years, Belize produces some of the world’s finest cacao, and it’s an industry that helps both small–scale farmers and the environment. If you haven’t yet experienced Belizean cacao, you’re in for a surprise.
Food of the gods
It’s widely believed that chocolate originates from Belize. The Maya were first to use it over 2,500 years ago—they drank chocolate with every meal, flavored with corn, honey, or hot chili, and used cacao beans as money throughout the Mesoamerican region. The Maya gods favored it so much that the cacao tree was named Theobroma cacao—“Theo” from the Greek word for god, and “broma” meaning drink. Fast-forward 2000 years, and cacao exported to Europe was ground with sugar to create the sweeter tasting chocolate bars you’re used to. But in Belize, locals still consume and produce the more traditional forms of chocolate, and Maya families enjoy the same cacao drink of their ancestors.
Food of the heart
Forget everything you think you know about the nutritional value of this sugary snack. Chocolate made without added milk oozes health benefits, and its properties earn it recognition as a superfood. Cacao protects the heart and reduces cardiovascular disease, combats fatigue, prevents premature aging, and creates feelings of well-being and even euphoria. Moreover, a 2013 Harvard study by Dr. Gary Small showed it can prevent Alzheimer’s. As if we need any more reasons to dig in, did we mention it’s an aphrodisiac, and can help you to lose weight?
Food of the future
Unlike other commercially grown produce, cacao trees grow best in shady areas. They’re planted amongst taller trees, protecting large areas of Belize’s forests from deforestation. This form of farming is called agroforestry, and many consider it to be the future of sustainable food production in the region. By eating more chocolate, we can actually protect tropical forests and local livelihoods? Yes—eating chocolate can save the rainforests.
Food for you
Local cacao associations assist Belizean farmers by purchasing their raw beans to sell to international chocolatiers. Local brands are also making and selling quality chocolate products around Belize, from San Pedro to Cayo, and Toledo. The majority of Belizean cacao, however, is grown in the Toledo District, home to the largest Maya population in the country. That’s where you can tour farms and learn from the farmers themselves how cacao is traditionally grown. You’ll take part in the traditional bean-to-bar chocolate making process that the Maya have perfected over generations, learning to use a traditional stone grinder, or metate, grinding roasted beans into a pure chocolate paste, and sampling flavors along the different production stages. If you like chocolate—and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have read this far—a cacao farm tour is a must-do.
Belize’s passion for cacao is in full display in May, during the annual Chocolate Festival weekend festivities in Toledo. It kicks off with a signature “Wine and Chocolate” night, featuring fine wines, local foods, music, and chocolate sampling from local chocolatiers. The Taste of Toledo Street Fair follows the next day, with chocolate inspired foods, crafts, family entertainment, and contests. The weekend closes with the “Grand Finale:” a cultural event celebrating local cacao farmers, usually held at one of Toledo’s Maya archeological sites. With local dishes, prizes for farmers, and traditional music and dance, it’s an opportunity to witness Toledo and the Maya culture in their brightest colors and flavors.
Food for thought
The next time you’re scanning the chocolate aisle, take a moment to check the origin of your favorite bar. Pause and picture yourself in a jungle, meeting gregarious local farmers who share the secrets passed on from their ancestors. Imagine how good that bar would taste with a piña colada on a white sand beach, while waves lap at your feet. When will your passion for chocolate take you to Belize?