As your chocolate examiner it is my responsibility to go to the ends of the earth to find all things chocolate to bring to you, right? Well recently that is exactly what I did. This will be the first of a series of postings about my experiences at Chocolate Week at Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize – so fasten your seatbelts and get ready for a real chocolate adventure!
In the beginning there was cacao…
The adventure began when I flew from New York to Belize City where I boarded a tiny little plane to head south – as far south as you can go in Belize – to the Toledo District. Fortunately my wee little plane landed safely in Punta Gorda where I was met by a driver from the Cotton Tree Lodge…an eco-lodge nestled between the banks of the Moho River and a rainforest. The nice young Mayan man was taking me on a quest to find the beginning of chocolate.
Had you been with me on the ride from Punta Gorda to the Cotton Tree Lodge, you would indeed say I traveled to the ends of the earth as we crossed unpacked dirt roads followed by more unpacked dirt roads which, of course, were followed by more unpacked dirt roads! The destination, however, was worth the bumpy ride as I was greeted by a smiling bartender with a tropical welcome drink (rum included!) and a beautiful lodge comprised of thatched roof cabanas complete with hammocks. This would be my home for the next week.
Chocolate week activities began the next morning quite appropriately with a harvest. We ventured into the jungle farm on the Cotton Tree Lodge property to harvest cacao from the trees. Our chocolate week group leader, Sam, an intern with Moho River Cacao, led us in our quest to harvest cacao. We learned from her that cacao trees are an under plant and as such are not planted in neat little rows like apple orchards and orange groves. The supposedly random trees and plants surrounding the cacao trees actually provide the 40 to 50 percent shade the trees need to thrive. It seems nature has a way of protecting our chocolate!
To begin our harvest, Sam pointed us in the general direction of the ripe cacao pods. The plants were actually quite beautiful hanging like ornaments on the trees in beautiful shades of red, yellow, green and brown. We used a very scientific method to determine if the cacao pods were ripe – we scratched the surface with our fingernails! While this was not so great for our manicures, it was an effective method of making sure the pod was not too green to pick. And the picking, well, it is actually twisting. Each pod has to be twisted off the tree individually to prevent damage. Thankfully the farmers who normally harvest the cacao are much faster than our group – otherwise there would be a severe chocolate drought.
Once the pods were harvested it was time to break them open and pull out our chocolate…or so we thought. Almost everyone in Belize’s Toledo District carries a machete which aids them in opening the cacao pods…at least we hoped that was the primary purpose of those blades. Being so new to the jungle, we were not yet entrusted with a weapon. Our method of opening involved banging two cacao pods together until there was a crack big enough to break the pods in half.
And inside…chocolate, right? Wrong. In fact, my friend, Vanessa, who was with me for the harvest described our revelation in her blog as follows: “The inside of the cacao did not look anything like you’d expect, unless you expect cocoa beans to look like the freaky monster that popped out of the crewmember’s stomach in the movie Alien, which, if you remember, did not look the least bit edible.”
Despite the white, gooey, creature like appearance of the fruit, we followed Sam’s instructions and popped a few pieces into our mouths to taste. Because when you are in the jungle, you do as you are told. The fruit was actually a little sweet and slightly tart. The beans inside of the gooey white fruit were actually rather bitter and far from the chocolate we all know and love.
Once the pods were harvested, opened and the gooey covered cacao beans removed, it was time for drying, fermenting and even a bit of cacao wine.
To be continued…