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.