One of the highlights of our trip to Belize for the Indigenous Corn Conference and to visit Mayan farmers across the country, was a day spent at the cacao plantations, chocolate making factory, and kitchen of Julio Saqui of Che’il Mayan Chocolate. I first had the opportunity to meet Julio at the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit where he processed cacao for everyone.
Julio and his family created the Che’il Mayan Chocolate Factory in Maya Center Village in the Stann Creek District in southern Belize in 2010. “Che’il” is the Mopan Mayan word for “wild Mayan,” meant to be a play on the stereotype that people have about Mayans. Cacao has been an important fruit for the Mayas for centuries. As Julio’s brother Narcisso gave us a tour through their forrest of cacao trees, he explained that cacao grows wild from Mexico to Guatemala. Early Mayas thought chocolate was a heavenly food, brought to this planet by the gods. A bitter dark drink made from roasted cacao was only for noble people, and the beans were used as currency. When the Spanish invaded, they brought the cacao beans back to Europe with them, and it then traveled across the continent, becoming popular with Portuguese royalty. In Amsterdam they invented machines to crush the beans and extract the oil to create coco butter. They created chocolate bars by adding milk and sugar to the ground cacao. Up until the 1980’s Mayan farmers would sell their beans to Dutch companies, and companies like Hersheys. But then these companies started buying cheaper beans in west Africa, mass produced on commercialized farms. As Narcisso described it, in the late 1990s the Green and Black company came to Belize from England and started to pay a high price for the organically grown fair trade beans they were producing. This company has since been sold- first to Cadbury and then Kraft. To help small cacao farmers deal with this volatile market, the Saquis helped to form a cooperative to sell the beans to chocolate producers. Then in 2010 they developed their own operation to make chocolate products themselves, with all organic materials, all from products grown on their land or nearby. Today, the factory produces chocolate bars in twelve different flavors along with other delicacies such as coco powder, chocolate wine, cacao tea and cacao nibs. The Saquis also gives tours of their cacao farms and demonstrations of the chocolate-making process.
After the ripe pods are harvested and the beans removed, they are fermented in wooden boxes for 6 days to remove the slimy covering. The liquid produced through this process is kept to make chocolate wine. After six days of fermenting (any longer they taste like vinegar), they are pulled from the boxes and dried in the sun until all of the alcohol has evaporated off of them and their moisture content is about 5-6%. They can’t be dried in the direct sun or the outer portion of the seed will be burned and the wine will become trapped inside and turn to vinegar. So they have to be dried just right. They are then bagged up and shipped to chocolate manufacturers around the world, or kept here to make chocolate at the Che’il chocolate factory. These beans are then roasted. They used to roast them over a fire with a comal, but it took a great deal of time. Now that they are producing a greater amount of chocolate (roasting up to 500 lbs of beans in a day), they do 40% by hand over the fire (because they taste best this way), and the rest in a roaster, and then mix them together. It takes about an hour and a half to roast the beans over the fire– it’s a gentle process done with bare hands. As Julio explained, if it’s too hot on the comal to move the beans around with bare hands, it’s too hot for the beans. From there, the roasted beans are ground. This used to be done with a stone grinder (which Julio demonstrated for us), but now he also has a mechanical grinder (which still uses stone components because Julio insists that tastes better).
Julio then gave us a tour of the chocolate factory, comprised of a number of machines that he has helped to develop over the years. Cacao beans are roasted and then ground to fine paste. Oil is pressed from the paste, to make coco butter (this is also what white chocolate is, although Julio described that most commercial white chocolate is 10% coco butter and the rest is palm oil, paraffin wax, and flavoring). The reason why most commercial chocolate doesn’t melt at body temperature is because of paraffin wax. Because Julio doesn’t add wax to his product, he keeps his chocolate bars in the refrigerator. Julio sells the powdered roasted cocoa beans as bakers chocolate, or adds locally processed sugar to make hot coco. To make the chocolate bars, coco butter is added into the cacao paste, along with sugar and locally grown ingredients for flavorings (mint, orange, ginger, spicy pepper). The chocolate factory makes about 1500 bars every two weeks, which are hand wrapped by community members.
Then Julio’s wife Heliodora and her family dressed us up in Mayan clothes and put us to work making an amazing meal! We made handmade tortillas, a soup with corn, green onions, white onion, coco yam, garlic, cilantro, culantro, mint, habaneros, and chaya leaf, and a chocolate corn drink. It was an amazing time.
Julio and his family welcomed us in and fed us well! I would highly recommend visiting them if you find yourself in Belize. And if you’re looking for some delicious chocolate from ethically and environmentally friendly source ingredients, made by hand by some really good people, I would definitely recommend you visit them on their facebook site to inquire about an order (I hear Julio is shipping to all of us stuck in social isolation…)