Belize is renowned for its fantastic beaches, lush rainforests, diverse wildlife and Maya ruins, but it was the cuisine that stole the show for Digital Marketing Executive, Silvia. Here, she gets a taste for chocolate in the Toledo District of the Central American gem.
Our transfer took us from the Lodge at Big Falls, in the Toledo District of Belize, to an unassuming thatched roofed cottage, complete with a washing line and a piglet running around in the front yard. We had arrived at Ixcacao Farm and were greeted by a host of friendly locals as we stepped off our mini bus.
The name of the farm comes from Ixcacao, the Mayan goddess of chocolate and also the ancient goddess of fertility. Our guide was Juan, the only Maya chocolatier in Belize and possibly in the world. He and his wife Abelina run the cacao farm and chocolate making facility in San Felipe. Juan was wearing a t-shirt that read “chocolate will save the rainforest” and he quickly explained how chocolate doesn’t come out of a wrapper, it comes from a tree. Reiterating the national motto of Belize, “under the shade of a tree, I flourish”, he told us how cacao trees require the shade of the national tree, mahogany, to grow. So, he questioned, why do we slash and burn trees these trees? We should plant according to nature instead, he said.
Our chocolate trail started in the garden, next to the plantation’s cacao trees, otherwise known as Theobroma. The cacao flowers grow directly from the trunk of the tree and although they’re beautiful flowers, they have no smell. Since they don’t have any smell, they can’t attract bees and pollinating insects for fertilisation, so they depend on midges, jungle insects and sheer luck. At Ixcacao they mainly grow the rare Criollo cacao variety which is native to Central and South America. They also grow Forastero and Trinitario cacao but only for the benefit of visitors.
For the next stage of our experience we went upstairs where Juan took a cacao fruit and cut it open, passing it around for us to try the ripe cacao beans within. Surprisingly, they were purple in colour and were lacking in any recognisable chocolate taste. As it is a very hands-on experience, Juan brought some roasted cacao beans for us to peel while we tried several combinations of cacao flavoured drinks, infused with chilli, cinnamon, cardamom and sugar. While we were busy peeling the roasted beans, in came the solid chocolate as we know it, and lots of it too. Any variety you could imagine; coffee flavoured chocolate grown at Ixcacao, coconut chocolate, chocolate with orange peel, chocolate with chilli, sea salt chocolate, cardamom chocolate, cinnamon chocolate, ginger chocolate and light milk chocolate.
At lunchtime, Abelina, known as the Queen of Chocolate at the farm, has prepared us a Mayan tamale, complete with kallaloo, a Belizean spinach and tender chicken in a chocolate sauce, the most delicious chicken I had ever eaten.
After lunch, we were ready for the hard work to follow: making chocolate using traditional Mayan methods and a tool made of hard volcanic rock called a matate. The matate at Ixcacao has been passed down through five generations. Grinding the cacao beans on the matate is not an easy task and we soon used up all the energy provided by the chocolate and lunch. Twenty minutes later, 100% dark chocolate started to ooze out. It is fair to say that after a visit to Ixcacao, you will never look the same at the fancy brands and products from your local supermarket.
Visiting a Belizean cacao farm and chocolate making facility is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the senses, it is a delicious addition to your holiday in Belize. Besides the cacao farms which can be visited all year long, there are plenty of reasons to visit Toledo if you are a chocolate lover. Every May there is a Chocolate Festival which takes place in Punta Gorda. It is easy to slot a cacao experience into your itinerary, just speak with one of our specialists.