San Ignacio in Belize is a sweaty and hot town. It was also the town closest to the Stardust Sanctuary Farm. But only seldom we drove all the way there to enjoy the place itself. Usually, we were sitting in the local bus station, waiting for a bus that would take us somewhere more interesting, or back home. If we had time until our bus, we sipped freshly squeezed juices in a nearby restaurant. In San Ignacio, we were always waiting. Until all the waiting came to an end.
When our time in farm came to an end, we realised there were still a ton of things to do in San Ignacio. One afternoon, we decided to check out what the chocolate tour at AJAW was all about. Apparently, the Mayas made great chocolate.
I couldn’t find any evidence of that in the local shops. The best dessert in Belize was a dreamy yellow lemon pie that I could never get enough of. But chocolate? All I remembered was a lonely Snickers bar in the shop shelf which melted between my fingers even before I could lift it up. No, I didn’t consume any chocolate in this country.
First ice cream, then chocolate
Now I must explain that my relationship with chocolate has always been complicated. As a child, I could never eat enough of it due to an unfortunate chocolate allergy which turned my arms and legs red. Once I got rid of that, I had to make up for the lost time. During my student days, I tasted everything I could get my hands on. A new flavour was always greeted with joy. Even my first journalistic attempts were written with a trusty white chocolate by my side. So, of course, I was curious about the Maya chocolate that I hadn’t seen sold anywhere. And what could be nicer than eating chocolate after having had an ice-cream in a Mennonite village just a couple of hours before?
Our noses led us to the AJAW demonstration room from where we were quickly pushed out. About thirty American kids occupied the room, all wearing colourful caps, T-shirts, shorts and tiny back bags. “Yes” or “No”, the children answered in a chorus when they were asked questions.
To our surprise, there was no one but us in the next demonstration.
I’ve walked in cocoa plantations before and admired the huge green fruits that look like papayas. I have tasted the white pulp inside. But how this white mass turns into chocolate- I had no idea! One foreign student in Indonesia took the fruit home, determined to get the chocolate out of the fruit- but I guess she also didn’t figure it out.
Luckily, now we got all the answers. Which made me think that, in fact, it was not a bad idea to be a cocoa farmer and be surrounded by the lovely smell of my favourite sweets forever.
But apparently, cocoa farming requires some patience. A cocoa tree only starts to bear fruits after five years. If I want to become a cocoa farmer, I’ll have to stay put in one place for a while. Not sure if that plan suits me just yet.
Next, we got to taste the same white cocoa fruit and discovered the bean inside. I was eager to take a bite of the much-loved cocoa bean, but the Maya lady stopped me abruptly. First, you have to ferment the bean with the white pulp for five days and then dry it. “Then we roast the beans,” the tour guide explained. She showed us a roasted cocoa bean on her palm. She crushed the bean in front of us and ordered us to taste it. Now that really tasted like chocolate.
No candy bars
But the process didn’t stop here, even though I was happy with this flavour already. It’s dark and bitter and probably very healthy since it doesn’t contain any sugar. These little pieces were called nibs.
Next thing, we got up from our comfortable seats and moved close to a lava stone that looked like a washboard. The guide threw some nibs on the stone and asked me to move another stone up and down to crush the nibs. If you did it long enough, the nibs transformed into a Nutella. Okay, not the real Nutella, since the mass didn’t contain any sugars or milk, just fat, but the beans had by now acquired their lovely creamy texture.
Another Mayan lady stood next to me and worked with a little fan. Soon, a thick chocolate smell filled the whole room. The Maya don’t turn this delicious mass into a candy bar but add a tiny bit of it into boiled water to get hot chocolate. They made us try two different drinks. One with chilli and honey and the other with allspice and cinnamon. Both were lovely, even though the second one was my favourite.
We left the place with the rest of the chocolate mass to make the drink at home. I still didn’t find out where the Maya serve this drink. The lady in the chocolate place assured me that the tradition didn’t die out with big Mayan towns like Tikal. But I never saw it in any restaurant menus. Maybe the drink will be served to me one day, when I visit a Mayan family at home for the first time. Until then I guess I have to survive with Snickers. Luckily some shopkeepers are smart enough to keep them in the freezer.