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.
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.
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.
Eladio started farming cacao when he was 20. That is more than 30 years ago. It was also about the same time that he and his wife began having children. They have 15 children; at the time of our visit the oldest was 31 and the youngest was just over 2 years old. Even though the Pops straddle either side of 50, they are already grandparents several times over, with some grandchildren older than their youngest child. “The cacao has been good to me,” Eladio said with a grin. Even though we learned a lot about growing cacao that day, all I could think about was his wife bringing a new life into the world every two years. Every two years for 15 years. I can barely comprehend this productivity rate as a single, childless urbanite. Edit news files on an endless production cycle? No problem. Produce 15 children? My mind reels.
But like any large farming family, the many hands have proved useful for harvesting the southern Belize jungle of its offerings. Every weekend the Pop family comes to the farm to gather bananas, mangoes, lime, cacao pods, sour plums, ginger, all spice, jack fruit, sugar cane, and more. As he led us through the thick brush, wending us up steep hills and under the low hanging banana fronds, we stopped to taste each one of these – fresh, tart, and sweet.
Bananas felled from the tree and sliced with a machete had the flavor of apples. Mangoes were thick and meaty. We sucked on large sticks of sugar cane, and ate “coco-soupa” (little coconuts) that tasted like cookie dough, a treat carried to school in the pockets of local children. Wandering through the tall grasses, Eladio came to an abrupt halt, stooped, and dug in the dirt to unearth fresh ginger root. We marveled, how did he know how to find it? With a shrug he said he remembered the spot of its plant before it shriveled to hay.
Ten years ago, Eladio sold 700-800 lbs. of cacao. In 2009, he sold 400 lbs. of cacao. Hurricanes and blight have taken their toll on the trees. All of his beans, like every cacao farmer in Toledo, are sold to the British chocolatemaker Green and Black’s and are used to make its Maya Gold bar.
The cacao grows throughout the jungle, all the trees at different stages of ripening in a perpetual cycle. The colors of a ripened cacao pod vary widely, from yellow-green to deep red.
We chewed on raw cacao beans, sucking on the sweet and tangy pulp before biting into the bitter bean. Cacao beans are fermented before they are roasted. They are covered with banana leaves for up to six days to build heat and drive the sugars from the pulp into the bean. Every second day they are stirred. The fermenting process varies from chocolatemaker to chocolatemaker. Taza Chocolate takes their fermenting process very seriously. You can read more about their process here.
At the end of the jungle tour, Eladio climbed with us into the back of the bus. We bounced in our seats as we bumped over rutted roads to his family’s compound where his wife and oldest daughter, dressed identically in turquoise cotton dresses, were preparing our lunch. Eladio got philosophical. “The jungle,” he said, patting his chest and gazing out the windows at the blur of passing green, “is my heart. It is my house, and my church.”
We silently nodded. No one wondered what he meant.
Related posts on Kitchen Report: Lunch at the Pop compound and learning how to make a delicious Mayan chocolate drink, The Jungle House at Cotton Tree Lodge, Taza Chocolate Tour