Peeling away the paper-thin exterior, the heat singes my fingertips as a heavy aroma of chocolate saturates my senses. "We don't want the fire too high or the chocolate will taste burnt," instructs Yesenia, owner of a small family operation providing visitors to Belize insight into the Maya chocolate experience. The pods are roasted by fire on a traditional comal. We are not cooking the beans inside but roasting the outer shells like peanuts. Once the shells are removed, we can grind the raw chocolate to make a sacred drink reserved for the Maya elite.
The pods or beans are placed upon the comal and lightly toasted to separate the thin exterior shell from the dense chocolate bean inside. A characteristic popping occurs during roasting. The whole process is less than ten minutes as the beans are constantly moving by skillful sweeps of Yesenia's hands.
Roasted cacao beans with the shells removed equals raw chocolate.[/caption] Theobroma cacao is the scientific name for the tree that produces the pods we came to roast and enjoy as chocolate. 'Theos' is Greek for "god" and 'broma' is "food," or "food of the gods" as the Maya refer to cacao, the native name for the chocolate tree. Nearly 15,000,000 acres worldwide is dedicated to cacao cultivation according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with the bulk of production coming from millions of small family farms with only a few acres. A recent hurricane in Belize has damaged the mature taller trees. Yesenia's garden is growing fast with the first cacao flowers blooming on the trees only a few years old.
Cacao trees grow in the understory shade of the tropical rainforest. Flowers emerge from the main stem. Only a small percentage are actually pollinated by a tiny midge fly that lives in moist rotting vegetation. The fruit takes up to 6 months to ripen. Pulp surrounding the interior pods are used to make a fermented drink. When the pods are dried, chocolate happens.
A cross section of the ripe fruit. The white pulp was first believed to be used as a fermented drink long before the Mesoamericans discovered how to use the chocolate beans. I have tasted the pulp and it is very tart. Photo by Keith Weller for ars.usda.gov[/caption] Once roasted, the beans are ready for grinding. We use a mano y metate or grind by hand on a flat stone. "It is the main appliance of the Maya household. Maya ladies used this process at least 3 times a day for maíz or corn." Today we are grinding down the dense beans into an oily paste. The motion is in the wrist, as we take turns for 20 minutes or more to grind a heaping handful of beans for 2 cups of Maya hot chocolate.
The Maya mixed the ground paste into a bitter tea blended with honey and/or chili peppers. We learn that "hot" chocolate refers to the spicy peppers added rather than to the temperature. Milk, cinnamon, and sugar was later added by the Europeans. Cacao originated in South America, where, there is still the greatest genetic diversity in the species. The beans were traded throughout the Americas. The pods were considered a valuable currency by the Maya and the Aztecs. The first European to encounter cacao was Christopher Columbus but the first real experience of chocolate was introduced to the Spanish explorer, Hernán Cortés, by the Aztec emperor Montezuma in the capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. Over the next century, the culinary and medicinal uses of chocolate spread throughout Western Europe. In 1753, the Maya word kakaw became cacao as entered into scientific nomenclature by Carl Linnaeus for Theobroma cacao, Food of the Gods.
Thank you to our wonderful hostess from Eden Valley Mayan Kitchen, Yesenia, for guiding us on an authentic Maya Chocolate Journey. If you are visiting Belize, there are many chocolate experiences throughout the country. Depending on the region, ask locals for a small family farm to visit for an authentic experience. Many families are willing to host visitors to their gardens and homes. Belizeans are warm, welcoming, and proud to share their Maya history.
Indulge your senses and dance with gods with some rich dark chocolate on this day of love.
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