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Travel: Eladio Pop's cacao farm in Belize

Ever wonder where chocolate comes from? A visit to a jungle farm results in a culinary adventure.

By Kitchen Report / May 23, 2012

Harvested cacao pods on Eladio Pop's jungle farm near Punta Gorda, Belize.

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I almost didn’t go. Even though the thought of spending Chocolate Week at Cotton Tree Lodge in Punta Gorda, Belieze, sounded like a home run as a vacation adventure it was a lot of money and I was having trouble finding someone to go with me. When I called to find out how much room was still available I was told there was only one cabana left: the Jungle House.

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Staff editor

Kendra Nordin is a staff editor and writer for the weekly print edition of the Monitor. She also produces Stir It Up!, a recipe blog for CSMonitor.com.

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All of the other cabanas are nestled around the Cotton Tree Lodge with views of the Moho River. The Jungle House was a quarter of a mile away by itself. Um. By myself and deep in the jungle? I wasn’t sure about this. But after some prompting from friends and family that it would “be good for me” I took a deep breath and sent in my deposit.

And then I thought of my friend Carol. Carol bakes and blogs at The Pastry Chef’s Baking. A business manager at a media mogul in Silicon Valley Carol had once taken time off from work to get a culinary arts degree before deciding she’d rather keep her love of baking as a hobby. Nonetheless, Carol is a true chocolate geek. So I sent her an e-mail seeing if she’d be interested.

“How much time do I have to decide?” she wrote back. I explained that I had already reserved the cabana, she just had to figure out her flights, and could really have up to the last minute to decide. Within a half hour I got a response.

“I’m in.” Phew.

*  *  *  *  *

After surviving a violent thunderstorm and a chorus of howler monkeys the first night we stayed in the Jungle House at Cotton Tree Lodge, I was ready for something a little more structured.

On the schedule the next morning for Chocolate Week led by Taza Chocolate, was a trip to a local cacao farm. We would see how cacao pods are grown, meet the farmer, and have lunch with his family. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting. I think I was imagining some kind of plantation where the trees grow in neat rows kind of like an apple orchard and that maybe afterward we’d sit around a big farm table in the kitchen and swap stories. Wrong, completely wrong.

Meet Eladio Pop, cacoa farmer.

The only way to tell that we were on a farm was a tiny hand painted sign high up in a tree featuring some kind animal. Otherwise it seemed as if we had just walked directly into the jungle, which is exactly what we did. There are no “rows” on a jungle farm, no fences, no barns. Everything is growing all at once all over the place, blooming, withering, and crashing to the earth at different times.

Eladio told us he had been a farmer for 36 years, he started when he was 14 years old. After primary school, there really is no other choice in Toledo than to go into farming. “My mother said, ‘If you like mangoes, you should get to work and grow mangoes,’” he told us. He liked the mango tree because it was “permanent,” and not like corn that has to be planted every year.

His success with mangoes gave him “courage to try other things, and permaculture farming,” an agricultural system that preserves the relationships found in natural ecologies. This explains the weird-looking animal on his sign – the agouti, basically a guinea pig on long legs. Although shy and rarely seen, its taste for fruit and ability to crack open nuts helps to distribute seeds throughout the jungle farm. “The agouti is my friend,” said Eladio.

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