Chocolate is often at the front of my mind, the object of all my cravings, and the most exciting part of almost any day. I will never refuse chocolate- so when I had the opportunity to visit some of the people who created the very first chocolate, I couldn’t pass it up.
The ancient Mayans are infamous for their sudden and mysterious disappearance from Central America, but they are also known for creating the first chocolate drink. Descendants of the Mayans still live in Belize today. Luckily, some of the local Mayans have established a small museum and shop known as AJAW Chocolate where they give demonstrations on traditional chocolate-making promises.
First we were introduced to the cacao bean pod- a large leathery yellow fruit that contains the cacao beans. The beans sit in a citrus-like wedge formation, held together by a mushy and sticky white fibrous substance (sorry that’s the best I can do in terms of description). We tasted one of these beans with white-goop-covering included. This is the purest form of the cacao bean. I expected it to be unbearably bitter but it was actually more of a nutty earthy flavor (and yes that is my nice way of saying it tasted like dirt). These beans are known to have valuable health benefits- but I still passed on a second serving.
The journey from raw cacao beans to chocolate had several steps. The entire cacao pod is allowed to ferment. Yup. Chocolate is absolutely rotten fruit. The fermenting process turns the cacao pod into a shriveled, black, moldy tennis ball (YUM). The individual cacao beans are then removed from the pod, dried, and roasted. The beans have a thin shell that is broken to expose the center of the bean. These shells are never wasted, but instead can be boiled in water to make a cacao “tea” or used as mulch.
From there, the beans are ground on a slightly curved stone plate until the oil is released from the beans and the beans become cocoa butter. The cocoa butter is the main ingredient for
Mayan drinking chocolate. Just add hot water. For the whole experience, the Mayans add a very small amount of chili powder. Despite the fact that I don’t particularly like spicy foods, I found that the chili really brought out the flavor of the cocoa. Even better yet- adding a touch of honey and a pinch of cinnamon.
If you’re wandering through San Ignacio, Belize any time soon- I highly recommend visiting this place. The whole demonstration was about an hour and the guides were very willing to answer questions. You even get to take home a little bit of cocoa butter!