Why you should care
Because this sweet stuff is crafted by the oldest Belizean-owned chocolatier.
When you grind your own chocolate, you’ve earned every bite. At least that’s my perspective after a day learning to make chocolate like the ancient Mayans did in the rural Toledo District of Belize.
Belize was one of the hubs of ancient Mayan civilization, and it was the Mayans who first discovered cacao, a sacred flavor once reserved for nobility and soldiers. Through trade, it was introduced to Europe, where milk and sugar were added to create chocolate as we know it today.
The Mayans valued chocolate so much they worshipped a chocolate goddess.
Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate is the oldest Belizean-owned chocolatier and the only one that also grows its own cacao. “I was born to a couple of Mayan cacao farmers,” owner Juan Cho tells me. “I grew up eating 100 percent pure chocolate, and my great-grandfather lived to be 115 years old, without a doubt thanks to cacao’s health benefits.” Ixcacao is named for the Mayan goddess of chocolate — yes, the Mayans valued chocolate so much they worshipped a chocolate goddess.
Contemporary craft chocolate may be a hipster hobby, with the help of precise machinery for everything from roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding, conching and tempering. However, Juan and his wife, Abelina, still make chocolate the ancient Mayan way. I try pulp-covered cacao beans fresh from the pod and bitter unadulterated drinking chocolate spiced with a little chili pepper and cinnamon before we begin the painstaking process of making chocolate bonbons.
Together, we crack nearly a hundred freshly roasted beans by hand, removing the outer shell before Juan deftly tosses them in a calabash gourd to separate the chaff. The next step — grinding — is the hardest. We use hefty basalt stone tools — similar to the stones used for grinding corn to make tortillas — that have been passed down in Juan’s and Abelina’s families for generations, possibly for thousands of years.
Trying to keep up with Juan is futile. In just 20 minutes, he has a beautifully smooth chocolate liquor, while my biggest accomplishment is a chocolate manicure. We then mix in brown sugar, but not too much. The higher the cacao content, the healthier the treats — nearly all of the Ixcacao bars are 80 percent dark chocolate.
Although Ixcacao is still a small family operation, not everything is done by hand. Between the company’s two machines, they can grind 150 pounds of chocolate every 15 hours. All of the beans used come from either the Chos’ 20-acre farm or neighboring cacao farmers, and the sugar cane is grown and milled on-site. They even grow all the spices and flavorings that go into their bars — ginger, cinnamon, chilies, cardamom, orange and coffee. Everything except for sea salt.
After this kind of experience, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for what bean-to-bar means. Hooked on the good stuff, you might even become a chocolate snob — fastidiously studying ingredient labels and shunning chocolate impostors (those with more sugar than real cacao, BTW).
Go there: Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate
- Directions: If you’re in Punta Gorda, Ixcacao is just 30 minutes inland; from Placencia, it’s a scenic two-hour drive. Roads are in good condition — only the last couple of miles are unpaved. Map.
- Tours: Various tours can include chocolate making, hiking around the farm, and a chocolate lunch featuring juicy chicken drenched in a rich cacao sauce reminiscent of mole.
- Where to stay: The NaÏa Resort and Spa is a couple of hours away, in Placencia. It offers beachfront villas, a spa and warm service (all employees are Belizean).
- Pro tip: Book a tour with Taste Belize and you’ll get the benefit of badass anthropologist Lyra Spang’s experience growing up on a cacao farm (she’s been wielding a machete since the tender age of 4).