Friday, January 31, 2014

Farm in Belize: Village Farm: Attention Wanna Be Jungle Farmers!

Our Farm from the Air
This is where I grew up. Yep. That's it. My home. You can see the little pier sticking out into the bay, the mangrove forests along the coast, the jungle behind. On this organic jungle farm we have about 40 acres of certified organic cacao trees, a hilltop of allspice and coffee, a black pepper garden, a couple acres of citrus and pineapples and a diverse collection of tropical fruit trees from all over the world. The entire property includes about 1500 acres of tropical hardwood forest, mangrove forest and the cultivated farm area. 

Why am I posting about this? Well, I live about 28 miles north of this farm in the village of Placencia. My parents are still on the farm. We are looking for caretakers and ideally long term partners on our farm as my parents are in retirement age and would like to be able to spend time away when they want to. Please read below and if you are interested in learning more contact my parents, Tanya Russ and John Spang, directly at the following:

Contact Information: 

John Spang & Tanya Russ

Village Farm
Box 16
Punta Gorda
Central America

Phone: 011-501-667-6925 (when dialing from outside the country, the 011 plus the country code 501 are required. Please leave a voicemail and try again if you do not get a response, email is usually the most reliable way to reach the farm)


Young Cacao Pods on the Farm

Farm and Opportunity: 

We are looking for a caretaker/s to share our place and the work.  
This isolated property is located on the coast in Toledo District, the southern-most district of Belize, about ten miles north of Punta Gorda, the district capital of 4,000 people. Punta Gorda is Belize's most culturally diverse town and Toledo District is more than 50 percent Maya, with Kekchi and Mopan groups mostly living in inland villages as well as the district capital. Toledo District is known as the heart of Belize's rapidly growing cacao industry and two small chocolate factories are located within 15 miles of our farm.  We are founding members of the Toledo Cacao Grower's Association (TCGA) and have been growing certified organic cacao for over 20 years. This is a mangrove coast; there is no beach.  A hill about a hundred yards from the shore provides terrific views of the coast, many mangrove cayes, the sea and the hills rising beyond us to the west.  There is almost no sign of human activity (other than our own) in this panorama.

This is a beautiful, peaceful, quiet spot with many flowering plants and trees, lots of birds, butterflies, other wildlife and fish.  There is plenty to do and see for people who love the outdoors: swimming, snorkeling, hiking, gardening, rowing, fishing, birding, kayaking, tracking, observing plant and animal life of many kinds including manatees, toucans & hummingbirds, barracuda & snook. We have a single kayak for fun as well as a paddling dory.  No hunting is allowed on our property.

We grow tropical fruit crops using organic methods on about 40 acres and we manage a forest on many more acres.  We have no livestock. There is plenty of fresh fruit to eat seasonally from the farm including mangos, citrus, pineapples, bananas, guavas, avocados, starfruit and more.

 There are a variety of living quarters on the place.  These have sinks, showers, simple composting toilets and beds with netting over them as protection against bugs.  (It’s like sleeping in a big square white tent.)  At times there are a lot of biting insects – mosquitoes, sandflies and other local denizens.  These bugs can be too much for some folks to bear, so that’s important to consider.  There are also spiders, lizards, scorpions, tarantulas and the occasional snake.  If you are allergic to bug bites or have a genuine phobia about any of these creatures, this is probably not the place for you.

Our cook house, kitchen/dining/communal hang out area
  We have a dozen buildings.  Most of them are unwalled and have no screens.  Some have concrete floors and the rest have dirt floors.  Several have sizeable lofts which are used for storage/living space.  The roofs are made of a variety of materials including thatch, black tarpaper and painted steel.  We’ve built everything ourselves (with help from others) with wood from our own trees and stone dug from our soil.  We have a small sawmill and make lumber from our  trees.  We have to bring in sand and cement to make concrete.

All our systems are our own.  We have running water from a gravity-fed system with a 5000 gallon ferrocement vat.  That vat is filled by rainfall and by water pumped from a shallow well.  We have both AC and DC electrical systems.  Power is produced by various conventional generators ranging from 1 to 5 KW.  We are completely off the grid.

We have many tools, implements, etc. to do our work and to build and repair things here.  We do our own fiberglass work and welding as well as maintenance and repairs (sometimes major) on virtually everything on the place.  We try to keep enough supplies/spare parts/ etc. on hand to avoid getting caught short.  We try to think ahead, to see potential problems, to anticipate breakdowns and generally to avoid avoidable difficulties.  We want caretakers with similar habits and abilities.  The ability to plan and ahead and to fix it (y)ourselves is important to keeping things running here.

Although there is no road to our place, we do have some roads on our property.  We have a diesel tractor and several utility vehicles called PUGs which are used for logging, hauling, etc.  The PUGs have Briggs & Stratton 16 HP gasoline engines.  We also have several boats and outboard engines in various conditions.  A 26’ fiberglass skiff with a 70 HP outboard is our main transportation.  All the outboards are OMC (Johnson/Evinrude).  Boating skills and experience are essential here.  Small engine repair/maintenance skills are also very useful and we are looking for someone with such abilities.

We have a Maytag washer and a blender, but not much else in the way of appliances.  There is no refrigeration.  We cook on a woodstove and also use a 2-burner gas cooker set up in the kitchen.  The cookhouse is the main social center of the farm.  It has a dirt floor, a thatch roof and no walls or screens.  There is a marine radio there as well as a desk-style cell phone (the service is fairly reliable and expensive), a shortwave radio (for receiving only), AM/FM radio and CD player. There is internet access at the farm. We have no TV but there are a large, varied library, plenty of board and card games, a number of magazine subscriptions and the great outdoors to enjoy.

Blooming Heliconia
While we have no objection to occasional moderate alcohol use, we have zero tolerance for the use of illegal drugs (including marijuana) and we don’t want folks who need booze or other self-prescribed drugs to function.  If you can’t go to town without drinking while there, please do not apply.  Boats and booze are a lousy mix.  This is not a good place for anyone with serious medical conditions which require ready access to sophisticated medical care.

We employ people from area villages on an as-needed basis.  They do much of the agricultural and forestry work and assist with building and repair projects.  Generally a small group (2 to 4) of men comes out to work for two weeks, then they take one week off at home before returning to work.  They have their own living quarters and do their own cooking and housekeeping when they are here.

This is an area where flexibility is required because this schedule can be interrupted/disrupted for any number of reasons.  A caretaker should be able to manage workers and should be attuned to cultural differences.  Experience directing people who may not be fluent in either English or Spanish is useful, but not essential.  You will be responsible for simple paperwork (timekeeping, pay records, etc.) in connection with these workers during our absence.

Safety is paramount and we want caretakers who take safety seriously.  We make every effort to work smart and to work safe.  Our safety record is very good and we want to keep it that way.  You will need to be able to provide competent basic first aid in the case of injury or illness.  

Breadfruit on one of our Trees
This is not merely a supervisory job.  It can be a hands-on, get-dirty/sweaty/itchy/greasy position sometimes.  At times you will be doing manual labor, just as we do.  The work demands vary depending on the weather, available help, and other factors.  Some times are busier than others, however you should normally have time for your own pursuits.  The pace is rarely hectic.

We expect to spend time training caretaker(s) and working together for a while before leaving anyone here on their own.  If you are willing to learn, we are willing to teach you what you need to know to handle things here.  We hope to find the right person/people, to share our place on a continuing basis and give us and our caretaker(s) flexibility for travel away and being here.

If we find the right person or people we would love to find a way to make a permanent partnership arrangement where you would get an opportunity to creatively bring this unique, beautiful and remote organic farm into its second 50 years.

If you are interested, please get back in touch with any questions.  Tell us about yourself, your qualifications, skills and previous experiences, your expectations and your requirements. 

We answer all messages we receive.  If you don’t hear from us that means we never got your email/letter/phone call.  Keep trying.

We look forward to hearing from you.


Tanya Russ and John Spang

Sunrise on the Farm Pier
Wild Heliconia Blooming on the Farm

Friday, June 14, 2013

Chocolate on The Brain: One of my Food Tours!

In the past 8 years FIVE small chocolatiers have opened their doors in Belize, close to the source of certified organic high flavour cacao beans coming out of our jungley Toledo District. Only one, Ixcacao Chocolate, is Belizean owned, but it is (according to my taste) the best of the five. Moreover it is owned by a Mayan family which makes for a unique experience as you get to grind up cacao beans to make chocolate on stone tools that have been handed down for generations, and drink hot chocolate like the Maya do: no milk, and (if you dare) with smoked ground fiery bird pepper on top. The company grows about 40% of its own cacao beans on a small farm (the rest is purchased from the Toledo Cacao Growers Association), as well as cultivating sugar cane that is cooked down into raw sugar used in their chocolate bars.The result is that when you eat a piece of their dark chocolate at their tiny factory, all the ingredients came from within 25 miles of the building! This is real farm to table chocolate and you can make it yourself right there at Ixcacao headquarters!

The last time I went on the tour was with my 83 years young chocoholic grandmother. She had a blast making chocolate for the first time in her life on 150 year old stone mano and metate (also traditionally used to pulverize corn for corn tortillas and anything else that might need grinding).

Me and Grandma drinking hot chocolate made the Maya way with no milk or sugar (you can add Ixcacao sugar or delicious sugar-cane syrup to taste) and a sprinkle of smoked hot bird pepper on top.

Above, Abelina with chocolate samples. I particularly love their spicy chocolate (the secret ingredient is allspice!) but the coconut, orange (made from ground orange peel from their garden), cacao nib and plain dark are fantastic too! Below, Juan Cho with the mano and metates for making chocolate the traditional way!

Its been a long and sometimes bumpy road in life since I started this food blog over 6 years ago. But I feel like I am finally settling into my calling-sharing my love of food and agriculture and Belize with the world! (Not to mention that being a tour guide is a great job for someone who talks a lot:). I hope some of you will look me up if you come to Belize and come on one of our tours! Check us out here: Taste Belize.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Belizean Stew(ed) Beans (the secret ingredient is the Pigtail)

I love stewed beans-called "stew beans" in Belizean Kriol. Everyone eats them in Belize and although the seasonings are a bit different with the traditional Mayan preparation, in any restaurant you will find this version, which uses salted pigtail to add a savory flavour to the already delicious bean gravy. If you want a vegetarian recipe for stew beans which features more Mayan-style flavorings found in some communities in Stann Creek and Toledo Districts check out my earlier post here.

Belizean Stew/ed Beans

Makes 4-5 cups of beans. I usually make double this amount so I have plenty on hand for re-fried beans, bean based soups, bean dip and other fun foods. 

2 cups of red kidney or black beans (red kidney beans are traditional, coming to Belize first as ballast in ships from New Orleans that arrived to purchase prized Belizean mahogany in the 1800s). 


1 allspice or bay leaf

Whole cumin seed, at least one teaspoon

Oregano, dried or fresh, to taste

Fresh garlic cloves, cut into several pieces, to taste.

One medium or half a large onion, diced.

Coconut oil, at least two tablespoons

Salt-brined Pigtail (fished by hand out of 5 gallon buckets in every grocery store) is the traditional pork flavoring device used in Belizean stew beans. If you don't want any pork product in your beans you can omit it, otherwise, ham hock, a fatty thick cut bacon or some other salty porky item can substitute for the pigtail. This is for flavour and to add something meaty to chew on when chowing down on your hearty plate of stewed beans.

If you do not use a salted pork product in your beans, you will want 1 teaspoon of salt or to taste.


1. Wash the beans to rid them of dust and pick out any debris (in Belize it is not uncommon to find an occasional tiny stone in the beans).

2. Cover the beans with at least twice the amount of water as there is beans. You will most likely have to add more during the cooking process. There are several ways to speed up the cooking process. One is by putting the beans in the water and letting them soak for 8-12 hours. If you work all day, just prep the beans in water before you go to work, then you can cook them in the evening and use them the next day or later that night. You can also soak the beans overnight and cook them the next morning. Otherwise you can put the pot of beans and water on the stove, bring them to a boil, boil hard for ten minutes, then let them soak for several hours. This will also cut down on total cooking time.If you don't want to soak the beans it will take a couple hours to cook them, but this is a great thing to do on a long evening or morning at home while you are working on other things.

3. Cook the beans: add the coconut oil, garlic, cumin seeds, oregano and allspice or bayleaf to the pot with the water and beans. DO NOT add any salt or the salted pork product at this point. It will only cause the skin on the beans to toughen. Then bring to a boil and let cook at a fast simmer/almost boil with the lid on. If the beans threaten to boil over, just crack the lid. The beans will begin to absorb water and some will evaporate so check on them every now and then, add water if needed so they are well covered, and stir to make sure they don't stick to the bottom.

4. After a while pull up a spoon of beans and blow on them. If the skin on the beans peels back when you do so, they are getting soft and its time to season the beans. Add your pork product (or salt) if you are using it and the diced onion. Continue to simmer until the flavors have melded and the beans are completely soft and delicious swimming in their own gravy. Correct the seasonings as needed. Serve over coconut rice with Belizean stew/ed chicken , fried plantain and potato salad or coleslaw for a classic Belizean Sunday meal.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Breadnut, Chestnut of the Tropics

Breadnut or Artocarpus Camansi, is the ancestor of breadfruit, the more widely known green football (soccer-ball) shaped starchy tropical fruit found across the warm regions of the world. Unlike the breadfruit, the breadnut is full of seeds. When ripe the fruit softens and falls to the ground. That's where I found this one, under a tree on my parents' farm. In the photo below you can see the very soft fruit, with its soft green spiny exterior. The seeds, to the right, comprise up to 50% of the weight of the fruit and can be easily removed from the ripe flesh.

According to the National Tropical Botanical Garden website, the seeds of the breadnut are low in fat (6-29%) and high in protein (13-20%) compared to seeds such as the almond and are a good source of minerals. All I know is that they are delicious if properly prepared, with a flavour and texture very much like that of chestnuts. Breadnut, although originally from New Guinea and Indonesia, is not common in Oceania like the breadfruit but has spread across the Caribbean, so you might find it there. If so you have stumbled across a versatile seed that can be treated exactly as chestnuts would be. In the photo above you can see the seeds embedded in the breadnut's ripe flesh, below are the seeds themselves.

                                                                                                                                                          Drop the seeds into hot salted water and give them a boil for about 10 minutes, then peel the thin shell off (once they have cooled a bit) to reveal delicious chestnut like goodness. This can be mashed with butter, put into a stuffing, glazed with sugar syrup to make "breadnut glacee" or blended with some rich stock to make a filling and delicate soup. They can also be roasted for an even more intense flavour. If you live in the tropics or run across a breadnut sometime, it is worth experimenting with! Fruits are also harvested green by pulling them off the tree and cooked seeds and all in soups and stews. Let me know if you have ever eaten breadnut seeds and what you made with them.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Belizean Coconut Rice

Traditionally the Creole and Garifuna people of Belize cook their rice with coconut milk. This style of rice making has spread to all the cultural groups in Belize with the happy result that whether you are Maya, Hispanic, Creole, Garifuna, East Indian or even Mennonite, if you are eating rice, chances are high that coconut milk might be in it. Many a rice and beans joint around the country are judged on whether their rice and beans and their white rice are cooked with the right amount and quality of coconut milk.

In Belize the average cook can go to the grocery store and purchase canned or even (gasp) powdered coconut milk, imported from far off places like Taiwan and The Philippines, but the traditional and by far the BEST way to make coconut milk is from scratch.

Never fear, it is not as hard as it may seem! In just ten minutes you can go from coconut in a shell to coconut milk. In Belize we have a variety of graters that are commonly used for coconuts. However, if  you have a powerful blender or a food processor, it can do the grating for you. And if all that is laying around the house  is a box grater, that'll work too.

First step is to open the coconut. Starting with a husked coconut, set it on a sturdy surface like a counter-top and hit with a hammer along the midriff of the coconut (halfway between the end with the three eyes and the pointy end) until it begins to crack open. Let the coconut water (the off-clear liquid inside) drain into a bowl. Now take a sturdy butter knife or an oyster knife and pry the coconut meat out of the shell. You can at this point grate it on a box grater on the smaller holed side, or you can put it in a powerful blender or food processor along with the coconut water. Blend or process until the meat is in tiny pieces. If you are grating by hand, take the finely grated meat and mix with the coconut water, mashing and blending by hand or with a potato masher, until the water looks milky white. At this stage, whether you are blending, processing or mixing by hand, pour the whole mess into a cloth and squeeze the heck out of it over a bowl until all the white coconut milk comes out.

This stuff is gold. In Belize and across the English speaking Caribbean it is used to cook rice, beans, fish, make bread, season soups and stews and concoct delicious desserts and puddings. But today we are simply going to make rice, the staff of life for more than a billion people across the globe.

When I was a child I learned two ways of making rice-my mother's way and my father's way. My mother's way was to measure out 2 cups of rice and a teaspoon of salt, boil 4 cups of water, then dump in the rice and salt, stir once, let it come to a boil, then simmer on low with the lid on until the rice was done. My father's way was what I call the Belizean way, because he learned his rice-making technique from machete wielding bush-masters in Toledo, the most rural district in Belize. It is the way I always use. Take as much rice as you think you will need (one cup of dry rice is usually enough for two people). Put it in a pot, run water over it and wash the rice, pouring out the water until the water runs clear instead of becoming cloudy with starch. Then put enough coconut milk (or water or broth if you don't want coconut rice) in the pot so that it reaches to the first joint on your index finger when the tip of your finger is touching the rice (this is much simpler than it sounds. Stick your finger in the pot until you touch the rice, and look down. Is the liquid up to the first joint of your index finger? Yes? Ok, you're good).

Put the pot over high heat with the lid off and let it come to a boil. When it has boiled until there is only a little liquid left over the top of the grains (which usually only takes a few minutes), turn the heat down to very low, put the lid on, and let simmer for about 20 minutes (30 for brown rice) until the grains have absorbed all the liquid and are not tough or crunchy when you taste one. Turn off the burner and let the rice sit in the pot with the lid on for another couple minutes before you serve it.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Chocolate in Belize and the Toledo Cacao Festival

This expensive slicer allows samples of cacao beans to be inspected for quality to ensure that proper fermentation and drying is taking place.

For the past 6 years in my home district of Toledo, Belize, an exciting food event know as "Cacaofest" has been taking place. Toledo District, the southernmost of our six districts, is home to the majority of cacao cultivation in the country, as well as being the birthplace of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA). The cacao produced for TCGA is certified organic and fairtrade. For years all of it was exported to Milan, Italy to be converted into Green and Black's "Maya Gold" chocolate bar; the world's first Fairtrade chocolate bar, developed in 1994 specifically to showcase the indigenous flavors of the Toledo District.

However, a wonderful development over the past few years has been the establishment IN COUNTRY of several chocolate companies, producing some really high quality chocolate. Goss Chocolate, Cotton Tree Chocolate, Kakaw-The Belize Chocolate Company and Cyrilas Chocolate are at the forefront of what looks to be a cacao boom driven by a new wave of chocolate obsession in Europe and North America.

At the same time, Green and Blacks, once an independently owned fairtrade company, was sold to Cadbury Schwepps which was later purchased by Altria Group, to form part of the Kraft Corporation!

I strongly believe that value added processing of our cacao IN BELIZE is a great step forward for the country-a step away from neo-colonial chains of production and consumption (as illustrated by the Kraft acquisition of Green and Blacks) and towards greater benefits for the Belizean economy. I admit to a personal bias in this matter, as my parents are members of TCGA and I grew up planting, caring for, harvesting and processing cacao for sale to the cooperative. To my knowledge we are the only non-Maya members of the cooperative. To learn more about the formation of the cooperative and the role of the Fairtrade Movement, go here: Fairtrade Foundation-TCGA.

As a result of the growing demand for Belizean cacao and the new in-country production of high quality chocolates, tourism and agriculture came together in the creation of  Toledo Cacao Festival, held towards the end of May every year. I have always been stuck in the USA when this festival took place. So you can imagine my glee at finally being able to attend this time around! I made the chocolate and wine tasting as well as the street festival the next day and ate so many free samples that I can honestly say I was sick and tired of chocolate by the end of the trip. It was amazing to see how many companies are coming to Belize buying locally produced cacao. Thanks to the new Chocolate Obsession in the United States of America, the demand seems higher than the supply and farmers have no problem selling their organic fairtrade cacao at premium prices to local and foreign chocolate companies.

The traditional metate used to grind everything from corn to cacao-making chocolate the Maya way at Cyrila's Chocolate Company. Notice the open cacao pod with fresh, unprocessed beans at the bottom of the picture.

Cyrila's is currently the only Belizean (Maya) owned chocolate company in the country. Hopefully the first of many!
Cotton Tree Chocolate Company right on Front Street in Punta Gorda Town produces a variety of chocolates including my favorite: a fantastic milk chocolate bar with cacao nibs; and gives a tour with free samples!

A new middle-man company, Moho River Cacao does its own in-house fermentation and drying and sells the resulting dried cacao to several small batch gourmet chocolate companies in the USA and Canada.

Ms. Zenobia vending handmade bags featuring cacao designs as well as her own home-produced cooking chocolate, hand-formed into balls. Cacao pods decorate the table.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Belizean Conch Soup

Conch soup is a traditional coastal dish in Belize. Queen conches are those big beautiful snail shells you see photos of in ads for the Caribbean. Being a large snail, they are also full of delicious muscle, with a hint of sweetness like a scallop, and the toughness of something that inches along on its foot. There is a way around that however. First you knock a hole in the pointy end of the shell, then you stick a knife in the hole and cut the conch where it attaches to its shell. Then you pull it out, as in the picture below:

 Once you have it out you cut off the guts, eyes and the thick yellowish "skin" leaving a white tasty yet tough muscle. Now, grab a hammer or better yet, a meat mallet, and beat the crap out of that foot until it tenderizes. Cut it up into pieces and you are ready to make conch ceviche or conch soup, or just add some wasabi and soy and enjoy as is-a real island treat when out fishing for the day:

Conch soup takes these tenderized pieces of sweet deliciousness and turns them into a hearty and filling stew made with a brown flour roux.

Conch soup is one of those traditional dishes made by "feel", with ingredients varying according to what is at hand and what each cook prefers, but some items are mandatory.

  • At least a pound or two of cleaned, tenderized conch cut into big bite sized pieces.
  • One salt brined piece of pigtail or other similar salty pork product.
  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Sweet Pepper
  • Some kind of what we call in Belize "Groundfoods". Sweet potato, coco-yam, cassava, breadfruit or green banana or plantain can be used, cut into large chunks so they wont dissolve as they cook.
  • Some firm ripe plantain to add a sweet balance to the dish
  • If you want to throw in okra, chayote or any other addition, feel free. This dish is flexible.
  • Tomatoes are a common addition to the pot if you desire.
  • Flour
  • Coconut oil
  • Seasonings: I like cilantro or culantro and a big leafed tropical oregano that is common throughout Belize and which some people call "thyme". Fresh ground black pepper. The brined pigtail is salty, so dont add salt til you have tasted the finished product.

1. Cut up the pigtail into pieces and heat up several tablespoons of coconut oil in a heavy bottomed pot. Toss in the pigtail and 3-4 tablespoons of flour and stir vigorously until the flour-oil mixture turns a medium brown.
2. Add chopped up onion, garlic, sweet pepper, ground foods and other ingredients (okra, tomatoes, whatever else you are adding) except for the conch. Saute for a few minutes then add water to cover the ingredients.
3. Simmer until the groundfoods are cooked through then add the ripe plantain and conch and cook until tender.
4. Serve with habanero pepper sauce and a cold glass of lime juice to cut the heaviness of the meal. Traditionally rice cooked with coconut milk is served with these hearty stews, but it is already filling without that addition.

In Belize this is a dish that is considered to help cure a hangover and also is thought to improve sexual stamina and performance. It also happens to be delicious.