As you may know, I love food. I love food experiences, from cooking classes in Guatemala, to food tours in Mexico, and of course eating everything I can! On my travels, I try to learn as much as I can about the local cuisine, which is an integral part of the culture in any country. Through food, you can understand traditions, how each group of people developed their own methods of cooking with local ingredients, and how the culture changes with outside influence. When wondering what to do in Belize, I found Taste Belize food tours where I could learn more about Belizean culture and food, and the all-important Belizean chocolate! This tour was one of the best I have ever been on, so read on to learn more about the Kriol fire hearth cooking, drumming with a famous Kriol drum master at Maroon Creole Drumming School, and a farm to table chocolate making experience at Ixcacao Maya Belizean chocolate.
I met the guide from Taste Belize, Elroy, in a coffee shop in Placencia, just before 7.30am. The early start was necessary as we were driving south to the Toledo district, about two and a half hours away from Placencia, where Taste Belize are based. Along the way we picked up a Canadian couple, and four Americans from their respective hotels in Placencia. Although it was quite a long journey, the time passed quickly, with Elroy stopping periodically to point out different fruit trees and animals we spotted along the way, as well as explaining different buildings we passed, and how the process worked at a local banana plantation.
We drove through villages and towns dotted along the main road. Houses in Belize are often built on stilts to help keep them cool, and we saw a real mixture of tiny run-down huts, and huge mansions. The contrast was striking, although the further south we went, the less mansions we saw. Toledo is often said to be the ‘forgotten’ district of Belize, with only one major road running along the coast. The rest of the district is jungle, and small indigenous villages that few people get the chance to visit.
Taste Belize: The Drumming Class in Belize
We finally arrived at our first stop, on the outskirts of Punta Gorda, the last town on the southern highway. I had already passed through Punta Gorda on my way from Guatemala, but hadn’t discovered this particular place. Maroon Creole Drum School is run by renowned drummer Emmeth Young, who, together with his partner, Jill Burgess, offers classes in traditional drumming, drum making and Kriol cooking, just one aspect of Belizean food.
As soon as we arrived I loved the vibe here. Jill was collecting ingredients in the kitchen for our Kriol lunch, and Emmeth was chopping sugar cane and coconuts for us to try, straight from the tree. He handled the machete very well as he deftly sliced the tops off the green coconuts so we could slurp the water inside. He also showed us how to open it up and eat the coconut flesh, with a coconut shell spoon! The older brown coconuts, are tougher, and need a sharp stick and a strong arm to open. These contain the harder coconut flesh I was more used to back home, and Emmeth grated it to squeeze out the liquid which would go in the rice for lunch.
Jill talked us through the ingredients and what she was going to make – the Belizean national dish which is stew chicken with coconut rice, okra, (and another vegetable I can’t remember the name of!), yucca, chicken with pineapple, fried bread fruit with salsa, and a lemongrass iced tea to wash it down. While she was preparing lunch, we roasted cashew nuts with Emmeth, which produce an alarming amount of oil as they cook, feeding the flames of the fire beneath. He then showed us how to crack the shells and enjoy the delicious nut inside. Before they are roasted, cashew nuts are poisonous to us, and even a little of the shell or skin remains it can cause chemical burns! The cashew season was over, but Elroy explained how the nuts grow outside their fruit, hanging from the tree like bizarre Christmas decorations. I had seen some of the fruit on my previous visit to Belize, but didn’t care much for the taste. The toasted cashew nuts were much better.
Then came the drumming class. Emmeth had invited two of his students to give us a demonstration first, who showed us how it should be done. He then attempted to teach us a simple beat, but it seemed our group lacked the rhythmic gene that the Belizeans have! However, after plenty of practise we were started to get the hang of it (most of the time!). Step by step we added more beats and with Emmeth’s help we managed to perform a full session, although as this video shows I kept losing track! It was such good fun, and so cool to be jamming with a drum master.
After our practice, while I massaged my sore hands, Emmeth and his students gave us another performance while Jill was finishing lunch. Emmeth started the school in 1996, and travels around Belize teaching drumming, although his usual base is here at the Maroon Creole Drum School. ‘Guns not Drums’ helps young people in the area to take up drumming and find focus in their lives instead of turning to crime or joining a gang. He has t-shirts printed with the following message for all the kids, I wanted to share it with you here:
I am young and powerful. I have a rich past and a rich future, and that wealth is not measured in dollars. I am responsible for directing the future for myself, not only as an individual but as part of a family and community, and as a citizen of Belize and Earth. I am important because the choices I make affect MY life and the lives of others, and I strive to choose wisely. I am young and full of creative force that is optimistic and dedicated to making change in a positive way, starting with myself, beginning right now!
It was a powerful message, and I hoped Emmeth would continue for many years.
When lunch was ready, we all sat together to share the delicious food, which was one of the best meals I’d had in Belize, and a wonderful example of the traditional food of Belize. I’d never tried bread fruit before, and the different flavours worked really well together. We were all stuffed, and thanked our hosts and the performers before we left to continue our adventure – bringing with us the toasted cashews to have with our dessert at Ixcacao Maya Belizean Chocolate Farm!
Taste Belize: Chocolate Tour in Belize
When we arrived at the farm, in the town of San Felipe not far from Punta Gorda, the owner Juan was waiting to greet us. He showed us around the garden of the farm, where different types of cacao trees were growing. Juan explained the history of cacao in Belize, and showed us the difference in each cacao tree, and what kind of chocolate each tree produces. The cacao flowers grow straight from the branch of the tree, small, delicate blooms which eventually turn into large cacao pods. We harvested a pod from one of the trees, from which we would make our chocolate.
Inside the farm building, we sat down and tasted a hot chocolate drink that the Mayans first made hundreds of years ago, before the Spanish arrived. The drink was quite bitter, made from 100% cacao, mixed with hot water. We then added a touch of chilli powder, which balanced out the flavour a little, although it was still very strong! Then, cinnamon helped to add sweetness, and finally we added some sugar which made the chocolate drink much more palatable for my sweet tooth. Sugar and spices like cinnamon aren’t native to Latin America, they were brought over from East Asia and East India, so the Mayans didn’t add such flavours, they came much later.
After the chocolate drink, we tried several varieties of chocolate that Ixcacao make here. Flavours like ginger, chilli, cardamom, orange and sea salt, as well as 80% cocoa chocolate, and some with cacao nibs (chunks of roasted cacao beans) mixed in with the chocolate. They were all delicious! So how do you make chocolate, from the cacao pod we had harvested earlier, to the delicious, smooth chocolate we had just tasted?
Juan explained the process, first cutting open the cacao pod. It looked like a weird insect larva, white and bumpy. The cacao beans are surrounded by a white, fruity pulp which protects the seeds. We each popped one into our mouths and the pulp was quite tasty too. Then we bit into the bean, which didn’t taste of too much at that point. A bitter, earthy taste if anything. But when the beans are roasted I really started to smell the beginnings of chocolate. We took some of the roasted cacao beans & peeled them to reveal shiny cocoa nibs. We tasted these too, which were similar to the chocolate drink we tried earlier, the bitterness meant it still didn’t taste like chocolate, but it was definitely getting closer!
Juan took a handful of beans and put them on his large pestle and mortar for grinding. Obviously he had done this many times before, and he ground a few of the beans, releasing the cocoa butter they contain to blend into a paste. We all took a turn, looking decidedly less professional than Juan, but it was still good fun! It was a workout too, and you could see through Juan’s broad shoulders that his muscles had built up over years of chocolate making. When the paste was finally silky smooth we all had a little taste. Still bitter!
Juan then demonstrated how much sugar is typically added to the cacao in order to make the chocolate we know and love. Famous quality chocolate brands like Godiva usually contain around 50% cocoa, with the rest of the ingredients made up of high fructose corn syrup, bleached white sugar, hydrogenated palm oils, artificial colourings, flavourings, and paraffin wax. Yummy. Even more worrying was when Juan explained that American chocolates like Hersheys, Mars, etc, only contain 10 – 20% cocoa.
Anything above 75-80% chocolate is considered healthy, as it contains high levels of antioxidants, minerals and even 11% fibre. Dark chocolate has been found to improve blood flow, lower blood pressure, and even lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. At Ixcacao the ‘norm’ is 80%, with brown sugar and other flavours added to create the chocolates we had sampled. Juan added 20% sugar to our smooth cocoa paste and ground it again until it was smooth once more. We all tasted the chocolate again, and it was heavenly! I had forgotten about the cashew nuts we had brought with us until Elroy suggested dipping them in the chocolate. Seriously, one of the best desserts I had eaten, and made all the more tasty given that we had seen every step of it’s production!
In the beginning, Ixcacao really did use that same method we did to produce their chocolate bars, making just 3lbs of chocolate in 9 hours. Now they have upgraded to a grinder which makes 50 lbs in 15 hours. The bars have golden wrappers, and opening the fridge in the chocolate shop was like staring into a bank vault! I couldn’t resist buying some chocolate to take back with me, although it didn’t last long! I bought small bars of sea salt, 80% dark chocolate, and an orange flavour one. I’m still not sure which is my favourite, I think I’ll have to go back and sample some more just to make sure!
Sadly, our tour had come to an end. Juan was an excellent host, funny and witty, and even played us a marimba tune to say goodbye. I had thoroughly enjoyed my day, and was sad to get into the van to drive back to Placencia. If you do come to Belize, and to Placencia, you HAVE to try a Taste Belize food tour, I promise you won’t be disappointed!
Don’t believe me? You can also read Taste Belize reviews on TripAdvisor here.
Where to stay in Placencia
I stayed at Anda di Hows Hostel, a chilled out place right on the beach. There aren’t many budget hostels in Placencia, and this is a great choice.
Have you tried traditional Belizean food? Tell us your experiences in the comments below.
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Thank you to Taste Belize for giving me a complimentary tour. As always all opinions are my own, and the fact I loved it clearly influenced my review!
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