On our most recent trip to Belize, we visited the birthplace of a Hershey bar. OK, not a Heshey bar. The Hershey Company of Pennsylvania, that feel-good all-American maker of silver-wrapped kisses, bars, and other Wonka-ish treats has long been under extreme criticism for continuing to turn a blind eye when it comes to its sources of cocoa, the raw material of chocolate. Most of the world's cocoa - probably including the stuff in your candy bar - is the product of child slave labor in West Africa. The Hershey Company has pledged to mend its ways, and says that by 2020 they will only used "certified cocoa" which will be cocoa grown and processed under fair labor standards and environmentally sustainable practices.
Why the long wait, Hershey chocolatiers?
In the Toledo District of Southern Belize, hundreds of farmers are growing and processing cocoa organically and without slave labor right now. The industry is relatively small, but seems poised to become an important part of the local Belize economy. On our trip, we saw several small, family owned chocolate manufacturing businesses. I hesitate to use the term 'factory' which implies temperature controlled stainless steel vats and workers in hairnets. What we saw was more grass roots - old recycled refrigerators and re-purposed meat grinders. But it felt like the birth of something bigger, and we suspect that within a few years the stainless steel vats will come. Manufacturing has to start somewhere.
During our Belize tour, we visited the organic farm of the energetic and passionate Mr. Eladio Pop. He feeds his family of 15 (!) almost exclusively from his farm, and he grows cacao beans as a small cash crop. The cacao beans are harvested from the sweet juicy pulp of the football-shaped cacao pod. They are fermented for a few days, then roasted to become cocoa beans. These cocoa beans, when ground, become the raw material of chocolate, when mixed with sugar and other ingredients.
The tour through Eladio Pop's farm was simply amazing. As we hiked his many acres of hilly farmland, he whacked, dug, sliced and picked various plants for us to taste, including the raw cacao seeds. Eladio would slice open a ripe pod with his machete, then enthusiastically pop out some seeds for us to try. The seeds are covered in a sweet gelatinous pulp that tastes a bit like kiwi. Or melon. Or heaven. Once he could see that we were properly appreciative, he handed us the entire pod to sloppily munch through as we continued our hike.
After our hike we were invited to his home, where his oldest daughter demonstrated how the beans are roasted over an open fire, and then ground to a rich, buttery paste. She used a grinding stone that has been in the family for countless generations of Mayan ancestors. After we were properly impressed by the ancient stone tool, she switched to the faster meat grinder, slapping away the hands of her younger siblings who kept snitching the hot, freshly roasted beans before they could make it to the grinder's hopper. Of course, we had to snitch some too, and as penance I took a turn at the grinder. All this work culminated in a cup of authentic Mayan cocoa, which was simply ground cocoa paste, hot water, and a little allspice. It wasn't a sweet cup of cocoa with little marshmallows. It was hot, bitter, liquid Mayan history, and it was delicious.
These pictures are from Eladio Pop's farm.