Belizean food may not be famous outside of our small country YET, but from the moment you arrive on our sunny shores we guarantee an adventure for your body, mind, and taste buds.
One of our all-time favorite people to guide visitors on their culinary journey is the man behind AJAW Chocolate in the nearby town of San Ignacio. Meet "cacao man" Adrian Choco!
He and his parter Elida are Kekchí Mayans originally from the southern Toledo District. They moved here to graciously share the Maya way of cultivating cacao and making the world's most delicious chocolate bars!
We sat down with him to talk about how he brings the ancient Maya chocolate-making techniques to 21st century adventurers from around the world.
Can you share with our readers more about your culture and the history of chocolate making in Belize?
Our mission at AJAW is to bring back traditional chocolate making, the very first hands-on chocolate making technique invented in the Maya world. Today this process is still practiced by the indigenous people here in Belize.
The Ketchi Maya are one of the last tribal groups established at the end of the Maya Empire in 800 AD. Our language, culture and tradition are still wildly practiced in the heartland of Southern Belize, where there's a high amount of rainfall every year, covering the ground in green trees and filling the pristine river flowing through the jungle. In this climate grows one of the world’s favorite foods: the Chocolate Tree.
Chocolate, also known as Theobroma Cacao, is native to South and Central America and was domesticated by ancient civilizations sometime around 2000 BC. The “bean of the gods,” as it is known, is prepared using a special art and science, and converted into a hot beverage only intended to be consumed by a handful of the most elite Maya for certain ritual and religious purposes.
What made you interested in growing a business from chocolate making?
Today chocolate is consumed in every corner of the world. But how was it first prepared? What sort of science and intense labor did it take to create this delicacy in ancient times? We opened AJAW just 'a bean's throw away' from the town of San Ignacio as a family-friendly way to showcase the traditional hands-on chocolate making techniques of our people using the ancient Maya Stone "Mano & Metate." Known in Ketchi as “Ten’leb” & “Caaj” these are used to process all sorts of staple foods like cacao, corn, seeds or grains.
AJAW Chocolate is operated by our Ketchi family. We speak a language from 800 AD, and we maintain our culture and traditions. I carry the legacy of my father, a cacao farmer. Planting and using cacao like my ancestors, and being able to educate visitors and help them experience a pinch of our rich Mayan heritage helps keep our culture alive.
What is the process of the Maya chocolate making?
The complex process of cacao-to-chocolate takes intense labor for four to five weeks. Our trees take five years to start flowering. Then it's six months from flowering until a cacao pod matures. Then the pods are harvested by hand, broken to be fermented in wood crates for 14 days, and then it goes to be hand washed and sun dryied for up to 5 days.
Our beans are then gently handpicked to be fire roasted for an hour, hand peeled, and then the most fun part - and the part our visitors can experience for themselves - human hands grind the beans in to a pure Mayan chocolate paste ready to be made into delicious treats!
Chocolate is loved my many, what makes the Maya chocolate different from others in the world?
Maya chocolate has a pure, un-spoilt flavor. Our cacao trees are all shade-grown in the place where they was first domesticated hundreds of years ago, and they're still farmed by indigenous farmers. The handpicked cacao beans are converted to chocolate bars that have no foreign additives but instead simple local sweeteners. And with no preservatives, the flavor only lasts for half an year.
What would you say is a guest’s favorite part of the chocolate making experience?
Most people talk about learning the historical process and tasting the beans at the different stages it goes through to get to be a paste. Of course tasting real chocolate for the first time is a breathtaking experience since around the world chocolate is known to be sweetened. And probably the most thrilling part is partaking in using the grinding stone themselves - it's a true "Kodak Moment."
Why should guests choose to do the chocolate making tour?
This is a chance for visitors to experience local Belizean flavors and traditional Mayan culture through our favorite food. Visitors will walk away full of chocolate history and firsthand experience from bean to a religious drink.
This is gem produced by local Belizeans on Mayan land, a gem that is shared by word of mouth that persuades travelers from all over the world to come taste this unique culinary experience.
That it is Adrian! And it you'll excuse us, we're going to pop into his kitchen to pick up a few bars for our afternoon snack.
Want to grind a Mayan chocolate bar yourself and learn from the master? Talk to our team to book your authentic Belizean experience today!