Juan and Abelina Cho have chocolate running through their veins.
The two chocolatiers that own Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate in the rural Toledo district of Belize come from cacao-farming families and the hefty basalt stone tools they use for grinding cacao beans were passed down through their families for at least five generations, and possibly thousands of years.
On Juan’s identification card, his place of birth is listed as “Crique Cacao,” which translates to Cacao Creek. “It gives me chills knowing where I was born,” Juan says. “And tears of happiness to see the end result before my eyes. I feel like a king. I get to share my knowledge and fulfill my destiny, making this world a better place for the next generation.”
Belize was the heart of ancient Mayan civilization and it was the Mayans who first discovered cacao, a sacred seed reserved for nobility and soldiers. Cacao was mainly consumed as a hot beverage during special ceremonies and celebrations. Cacao beans were part of a dowry and consumed during royal marriages. Through trade, the Mayans introduced cacao to Europe, where milk and sugar were added to create sweet chocolate as we know it today.
These days, if you pay attention to the wrappers on most mass-produced candy bars, you’ll realize that you’re consuming more sugar, hydrogenated oils and milk solids than actual cacao. But at Ixcacao, all except one of their chocolate bars is at least 80% cacao
Ixcacao is the oldest Belizean-owned chocolatier and the only Mayan chocolate maker that also grows their own cacao for a farm-to-bar operation. Ixcacao is named for the Mayan goddess of cacao and fertility – yes, the Mayans valued cacao so much that they worshipped a chocolate goddess.
The bean-to-bar chocolate-making process, used by Ixcacao and other craft chocolate makers, has up to eight steps. Contemporary craft chocolate is made with the help of precise machinery for roasting, cracking, winnowing (separating husk from bean), grinding, conching (smoothing and mellowing flavor) and tempering (pre-crystallising the cocoa butter for a glossy exterior and crisp snap).
Modern day palates aren’t as receptive to snacking on 100% dark chocolate as the Mayans, so Ixcacao adds sugar now to most of their bars, but they keep it as dark as possible.
“I grew up drinking and eating cacao in its purest form on the farm,” Juan says. “I still eat and drink it at 100%, and so do my children. Apparently they now are spoiled, so that vacationing we carry our own product with us, as it’s hard to find pure cacao out there!”
Guests at Ixcacao also experience chocolate the preferred way of the Chos and their ancestors: drinking bitter unadulterated chocolate spiced with a little chili pepper and cinnamon, eating pulp-covered cacao beans fresh from the pod, and winnowing and grinding the beans by hand in the painstaking process to make chocolate bonbons.
On a recent visit there, we cracked nearly a hundred freshly roasted beans by hand, removing the outer shell. The warm beans smelled like brownies just taken out of the oven and had a pleasant nutty, earthy flavor even before adding any sugar.
Juan deftly tossed the beans in a calabash gourd to separate the husk remnants. Next came the hard part – grinding. The basalt stone we used is just like the stones used for grinding corn to make tortillas. It took a lot of muscle to grind the cacao beyond a gritty paste to a smooth liquid.
Both Juan and Abelina received a stone from their families as a wedding gift, and as luck would have it, I visited the happy couple on their 19th wedding anniversary. “Our parents conducted a chocolate ceremony for us celebrating our accomplishments,” Juan says. They attribute cacao to living a long and healthy life – Juan’s great grandfather lived to be 115 years old.
Ixcacao is still a small family operation today, although the Chos do have some equipment to help with grinding. When they started in 2000 they could grind three pounds at a time by hand. Now, between their two machines, they can grind 150 pounds of chocolate every 15 hours.
All of their heirloom criollo beans come from either their 20-acre farm or neighboring cacao farmers. A basic dark chocolate bar has just two ingredients – cacao and brown sugar, and they even grow their own sugar cane and have a sugar mill on-site to maintain their farm-to-bar commitment. In fact, they grow all of the ingredients that go into their bars themselves – ginger, cinnamon, chilies, cardamom, orange and coffee (everything except for sea salt).
Juan’s parents used to sell their beans through the Toledo Cacao Growers Association farmers cooperative to Green & Black’s, a British company that prided itself on making organic, ethically sourced chocolate until it was purchased by Cadbury in 2005.
“The market was good, but still not sustainable to my knowledge, because the company can choose to continue or just stop, which is what happened recently,” Juan explains. “ Kraft Foods bought the company and then the farmers are again being taken advantage of by an American company. For myself and my wife, we had to seek an alternative in processing our own cacao beans. Thanks to the tourism industry that is engaged in cultural tourism, this has enabled us to be competitive. We have created a more stable and sustainable market for my own community by buying 40% of our beans from them.”
You can order Ixcacao’s chocolate online – they’ll ship to the United States. But it’s more fun if you visit and make your own bars. Tours are available through Ixcacao and Taste Belize.
It’s fitting that Ixcacao’s bars are packed simply in shiny gold wrappers. The refrigerated case stacked high with chocolate bars reminds me of a bank vault filled with bars of gold. After all, cacao beans used to be a Mayan form of currency, and I can’t help but wonder what the world might be like if we were on the chocolate standard rather than the gold standard.