Our visit to Belize for Taza Chocolate’s annual chocolate week began with a visit to Eladio Pop, a Mayan cacao farmer who is somewhat famous in the Toledo District of southern Belize. He is the main character in a documentary called “The Chocolate Farmer”, and he’s been the subject of other videos and write-ups as well. Search “Eladio Pop” on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.
|Eladio’s Cacao Pods|
We met Eladio at his “farm” in the jungle. I put farm in quotes because it’s not an orchard with neatly planted rows of a single crop of trees as you might expect in the US. Eladio’s farm is a mass of organized jungle, filled with fruit trees of all kinds, cedar and mahogany trees, rubber trees, spice trees, chili bushes and every kind of edible or useful plant you can imagine. It’s not planted in an orderly fashion, but Eladio knows every plant on his farm, its history and exactly where it’s located.
As I listened to the ever-smiling Eladio talk about his farm, I couldn’t help but think that he could be coining it in the US as a motivational speaker. He had plenty of enthusiasm and charisma, but also a strong personal philosophy that included beliefs about the detriments of education, the preservation of his cultural Mayan heritage, slash & burn farming, his ants, cacao, you name it. His wardrobe seems to consist of t-shirts from the US with messages on them. The first one he wore during our visit was a local, “Maya Mountain Cacao” shirt, followed by a “think outside the box” t-shirt and then a “TURN OFF the TV” shirt, which my husband, Mark, pointed out was a Seattle company. I noticed on various photos on the internet that his collection includes “The Rules Don’t Apply to Me”, an NYPD shirt, and more. These t-shirts left me with many questions, such as “Did he purchase these shirts himself?” “Did visitors leave them for him?”, “Does he choose the message to make a statement, or does he just like the shirts?” But I digress.
|Mayan Ruins on Eladio’s Farm|
|Pete, the botanist, with Eladio|
We began our tour near a cacao tree with a sign that says “Agouti Cacao Farm, owned by Eladio Pop”. Eladio cracked open a cacao pod and passed it around for our first taste of mucilage in Belize. This was a recurring theme throughout our trip. Plenty of cacao mucilage to taste, all of it juicy and delicious, and yes, it grows on trees all over the jungle and at the Cotton Tree Lodge. And, as my fellow travelers would knowingly say, “we had Pete”, an exuberant botanist who plucked any edible fruit off of any tree we came across and figured out how to open it so we could taste whatever he’d found. Pete kept us eating cacao throughout our trip. The just-off-the-tree, fresh pods of Belize had lots of thick, sweet, tart and fruity mucilage that was like ambrosia. Mucilage is the gelatinous pulp that covers cacao beans and is critical to fermentation. It tastes fantastic in its raw form.
|Mmmm! Fresh, juicy cacao beans covered in mucilage|
I’ve always told my customers that you suck on the pulp of cacao but that you don’t eat the beans because they’re too bitter. That’s been the experience I’ve had when hanging out with chocolate makers and cacao scientists – they usually spit out the beans after enjoying the pulp. It turns out I was wrong. The Maya we met suck on the pulp and eat the beans. In fairness, these are the best-tasting cacao beans I’ve ever tasted. While there’s certainly a bitter finish when chewing on the beans, they taste nothing like the ones I’ve been able to get my hands on in the US. I can understand why a farmer would eat the entire thing.
|Organic composting at its best|
As we rambled through the jungle with Eladio, he pointed out trees, property lines, termite nests and his ants. Ants are an important part of his organic farming and they serve as an indicator of the farm’s health. What I thought were very narrow hiking paths on the ground turned out to be ant trails that lead to a large anthill. The ants had built up a significant mound of lovely, aerated dirt, and Eladio picked up a handful and threw it on the base of a nearby tree. He relies on this excellent dirt to improve the soil quality on his farm.
As we continued our hike through Eladio’s farm he pointed to property lines on distant hills. It looked like one large jungle to me, seemingly impossible to distinguish one property from another through the dense forest and steep hills. His cacao trees are scattered about his farm among allspice trees, apple bananas, hot chili peppers, cedar, calabash, Theobroma Bicolor (a different species than cacao) and mahogany trees, to name just a few of the crops he grows. A strong memory for me was crumpling a leaf from an allspice tree and smelling its deep, spicy aroma. Allspice is a key ingredient in Mayan drinking chocolate, and we later had the opportunity to drink cacao and allspice in a traditional Mayan drink made by Eladio’s daughter.
|View of neighboring farms in the distance|
We arrived at a clearing where Apple Bananas were laid out on a tarp for us to eat. There was a hot chili bush nearby with tiny, oblong green and red chilies ready to taste. Many of us tried the hot chilies, and very soon I heard someone say, “Wash it down with an Apple Banana”, which I did. My mouth and throat were on fire.
|Eladio & two of his sons|
|Eladio’s youngest son|
Eladio’s farm is a perfect example of a multi-culture in which a diverse group of crops come together to form a perfect organic farm. Organic, multi-culture farming has been the Maya tradition for generations, and it enables cacao farmers to feed their families, no matter how cash poor they are. The Maya could teach us a thing or two about organic farming. There have been aid agencies that have come to Toledo and tried to teach the farmers to use fertilizer and pesticides (“inputs”), but many shied away from it because it wasn’t part of their tradition. Luckily, the aid groups left and the cacao farmers returned to their organic cacao-farming processes. Stay tuned for a blog post about the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, the farmer’s cooperative, and their experiences with some of these outside aid groups.
We left Eladio’s farm and headed to his family home, where we ate lunch. Eladio is a virulent man with fifteen children. His family lives in a cement-block house with a thatched roof, pretty much the same as every Mayan village we saw. Their kitchen is in a separate area with a dirt floor, no walls and its own thatched roof. While his family may seem poor by US standards, they have a lot of food. As one of his colleagues said, “We’re poor in cash, but rich in food.”
|Ryan from Raaka Chocolate showing Eladio’s kids a video of how he makes chocolate in a machine|
In Eladio’s case, business appears to be pretty good. His family offers tours, overnight jungle stays and chocolate making classes through their website and through the Cotton Tree Lodge and various tour groups. In the past year he constructed a new group lunch area with a cement patio and a thatched roof. His youngest son followed us around the farm with an iPhone, photographing us as much as we were photographing him. It’s wonderful to see a traditional, organic cacao farmer being appreciated by outsiders for his principles and practices. I look forward to seeing what Eladio’s up to in the future.
|Me and Eladio|
Next up on your armchair tour of Belize, a feature on Maya Mountain Cacao.
Happy chocolate tasting,