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.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Belizean-style Habanero Pepper Sauce

I originally posted a recipe for homemade habanero pepper sauce (also called onion sauce, depending on the ratio of onions to peppers) in my post on serre, a classic Belizean fish preparation. However, this ubiquitous sauce really deserves a post of its own.

Pepper or Onion sauce
This is an essential accompaniment to many Belizean dishes. Dont eat serre or other coconut milk based foods without it-the acidity of the lime and vinegar and the heat of the habanero cut the richness of the coconut milk and create a perfect balance of flavor. Whether you call it pepper or onion sauce depends on the ratio of onion to habanero-go with what works best for your tastebuds and heat preference.

Habanero peppers


Cilantro (optional)

Carrot (optional)

Lime juice


Preparation: Mince an onion and add to taste a quantity of finely minced habanero pepper. Remove the seeds and white internal membrane if you want to tone down the heat even more. Add minced cilantro, lime juice, vinegar and salt to taste. Some people like more vinegar, some like more lime juice. Experiment and see which you prefer. Let the whole concoction sit in a glass container. You can leave it covered on the counter for several weeks and it will stay perfectly fresh as the onion and pepper pickle themselves in the lime juice and vinegar.

NOTE: Most Belizeans do not mince the onion or habanero pepper, instead slicing them up into bigger pieces as you see in the photo above. I mince it because I like to have little bits of habanero all over my food. Its up to you which you prefer. Some folks use large chunks of pepper and onion and then never actually dip the pepper out, instead leaving it to flavour the vinegar, which is used to spice up food, and the pickled onions. Some people also add sliced carrots and even cucumber to the jar, which makes for some very spicy and delicious pickles.

Serve this with Serre and other heavy stews, with refried beans at breakfast, on top of guacamole or anytime you need some hot pepper flavour.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Ideal treat: one of Belize's iconic frozen snacks.

Behold the incredible edible plastic bag of bliss known to Belizean children across the country as an ideal. This sweet frozen treat is usually made with flavoured, brightly colored snowcone sugar syrups mixed with water and poured into small plastic bags, knotted shut and stuffed in the back of someone's freezer until an overheated schoolkid shows up at their door with a shilling and a quest for something cold, sweet and refreshing. While ideals could easily be made with real fruit juice, I have never seen one.

Milkyways, the ideal's dairy-laden cousin, are where local flavours most often get a chance to shine. Sweetened condensed milk thinned with water and tasty additions such as soursop, mashed craboo or sugar corn make milkyways a heavier, richer sweet than the refreshingly simple ideal. According to my research so far, most Belizeans consider ideals to be drinks-something cool to enjoy on a hot day.

We are not a country known for ice cream, so if you come to Belize I highly recommend you buy an ideal or milkyway and participate in this local frozen tradition. It may not take the sweat off your face but at least it will put a smile on it!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Anthropological Adventures in Belize: Research on Food!

I realize that I have practically abandoned my food blog over the last several years. This is particularly ironic because it was this very blog that resulted in my being recruited for a PhD in Anthropology with a concentration in Food Studies at Indiana University.

Conducting Research with Photo Cards of Food
In August of 2009 I crossed half the country from Washington DC to take on this monumental academic challenge. Now it is March of 2012 and huge changes and challenges have taken place in both my personal and academic life. Its been a tough couple years but I'm still here and I have recently decided that I need to re-commit to the blog that brought me to where I am today.

Where exactly am I? Well, BELIZE! Placencia, Belize to be precise, where I am in the beginning stages of my dissertation research on food, national and cultural identity, marketing and tourism. I finished my very last classes in May of 2011 and spent the summer running a field school on food supply chains and tourism in southern Belize. Then I returned to Indiana to study for the qualifying exams. Imagine reading about tourism, the caribbean, anthropological theory and food 8-10 hours a day for three months. Thats what I did. I learned more in three months than in a year of coursework. It was exhausting and exhilarating all at once.

I returned to Belize on December 4th 2011, immediately after passing my exams, with funding and a mission: to organize my research instruments in order to start work. I spent part of December and January doing this. I also travelled to Mexico on a spur of the moment trip that included a whirl-wind visit to Oaxaca. I have many, many food pictures to share with you from that excellent adventure. Look for futures posts on the wide world of tacos and the famous hot chocolate of Oaxaca among others.

My goal is to post something once a week. It may be short, it may be long. It may include a recipe, or it may be about my food research. I DO intend to continue to bring you recipes for popular local foods in Belize, so check back to learn how to make stew fish, rice and beans (the Belizean way) and conch soup among others.

An Outdoor "Cool Spot" in Placencia, Belize