After exploring the eastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico last month, we headed south into the azure blue waters of the Cayes off the Carribean coast of Belize. Having spent the previous 4 days on Caye Caulker; sunning ourselves, relaxing and diving, our next excursion took us to Belize Chocolate Company – an inspiring little chocolate shop in San Pedro, on a tiny spit of land known as Ambergris Caye. Run by a husband and wife team, Chris and Jo make it their mission to inspire and empower Belizian youth to work with one of the country’s award winning exports – CACAO!
Chris and Jo didn’t always know they wanted to make chocolate, like most chocolate makers and other professionals in the industry it seems to come about by accident, often after drastic changes in personal circumstance. Jo picks us up from the ferry port (small wooden shack with a rickety jetty by the sea shore that the water taxis come into) in their golf buggy – a common mode of transport around the Cayes, it’s rare to see full blown cars here that most of us city folk are used to seeing on a daily basis.
Jo used to work in London in advertising, working her way up steadily to become head of TV production for an ad agency. Drastic changes in personal circumstance result in a ‘wild decision’ as she puts it, to leave life as she knew it in the UK and train as a windsurf instructor in Barbados. It’s here she meets Chris, a British engineer, also training as a windsurf instructor. Chris had been living in the US for several years with a Belizian guy and had dreams of moving to Belize. It wasn’t long after this chance meeting in Barbados that they took another wild leap to San Pedro to set up a wind and kite surfing business, “back then these paved streets used to be only sand, just like the dusty beach streets you still get on Caye Caulker” Jo explains, “there was nothing other than dive shops back then, it was nothing like it is now.
We lived at the end of the spit in a little wooden house with our own generator, we used to turn it on at night for the fridge and then turn it off during the day to save the electricity. My sister thought I was crazy.”
One summer they got wind of a small chocolate festival being held in the south of the country. Organised by a group of expats, the idea for the festival was to boost local tourism to the area. In its early stages, the festival was funded by Green and Blacks to boost their brand ‘Maya Gold’, back in the early days when Green and Blacks were just setting up their fair trade initiative and began buying all the organic beans in the area. It was this festival that first sparked the interest in chocolate for Jo and Chris. Before this “I was a milk chocolate fiend; the milkyest Cadbury’s dairy milk or Nestle, I was happy, I had no idea how much involvement there was with chocolate” explains Chris.
“When this [festival] started there was no one on the island, or in the country making chocolate, the only vaguely local chocolate was this horrible stuff from Jamaica, so when we were at the festival and visiting some farms we got really in to just seeing the whole process and we got really interested in how chocolate is made”. A friend with a lodge on the mainland suggested they have a go at making it themselves, and so with just one bag of fermented and dried cacao beans, they started experimenting. At this point in time they still had the sailing business and did not know of any other chocolate makers in Belize. Being the engineering brains in the company, with a real love for processes, Chris started making chocolate machines in their kitchen and experimenting, refining, creating smoother and better machines. They later discovered that around same time other makers were springing up around Belize; in Placencia, and another in Cotton Tree in Punta Gorda, even San Ignacio, all were buying the same beans from TCGA.
There came a point when the windsurf business no longer provided them the financial support they needed to run the chocolate shop as well, so they sold the business and ran a hotel for 3 years to finance the choc business. This brought them no joy, and one evening, while discussing plans for the future, Chris suggested they just go the whole hog and open a chocolate shop right there in San Pedro, running it as their sole source of income. They quit management of the hotel, opened up shop by renting premises off friends with one location for the shop and another 3 for the factory and production while Jo took a course at L’ecole du Chocolat in Vancouver in Canada to further her knowledge and hone her skills of chocolate production, flavour blending and artistry.
They are currently looking at a new roaster to improve consistency of the roast and the bean flavour profile. But the cost of importing from the US and then shipping from the mainland of Belize is just a tad (insanely) expensive. So Chris is kept busy refining his machines out of vacuum cleaners and improving his techniques on processing in roasting and refining.
As we settle down to a tasting of some of their best products you can feel the passion they both have, and the excitement they still share when there are people in the shop, mouths agape, “wow, look at this”, “beauty products made of cocoa, I didn’t know you could do that”. “Balsamic vinegar with cacao nibs, so I can cook with chocolate too?” Well, you name it, they do it.
First up, after their incredibly refreshing and softly flavoured iced cacao tea – yes, iced, and yes, its goooood – is their 70% dark chocolate. This is their standard product, but they still notice quite a bit of variation from batch to batch. Chris explains this is often due to the fact that each batch will be from a different farmer who may carry out slightly different processing and fermenting techniques, and often on the different farms there are different strains of cacao. For us, this was quite a unique profile, and one I consider synonymous with Belize – a surprisingly sweet note, especially for a craft batch 70% dark. There is a great flavour journey, almost fruity, coming through almost like a sherbert mango combination with a great lack of tannins, so no ‘drying’ effect on the pallet. Not too much of a watery texture, with a subtle grainyness, so the flavours linger on your pallet for a pleasant amount of time. Something to be considered as an ‘easy eater’, a great introduction to the dark side of chocolate for those of you who may be shy. Enquiring about the beans and the roast profile, Chris confirms this was a Maya Mountain batch most probably picked last June, unaged, roasted a total of about 1 hour at two different temperature stages.
Starting with the darkest, we now move out way southwards in terms of cocoa, moving our way to 50% milk, with a higher fat content it is much creamier with less presence of the darker chocolate notes. This profile carries a much more milky flavour with the fruityness being replaced by a deep strong caramel note, and, surprisingly a subtle leafy or herbal note for a second, that is quickly overtaken by that caramel note again.
Next up, we have a 40% white chocolate which Chris is very proud of as it features their own cocoa butter that they make themselves, using an old Hershey’s original cocoa butter press. Given that their cacao butter is undeodorised there is a great earthy note that comes through at the back of the throat, and due to the lack of vanilla in this – good chocolate, whether milk, white or dark, doesn’t need vanilla – you actually get a great chocolatey note coming through on this. Despite it being a white chocolate it is not very sweet, as a result the milk chocolate actually tasted sweeter.
Now time for something completely different. Yes, caramelised white chocolate is a thing and has been done for a while, but this one from Belize Chocolate Company has such a unique flavour profile with notes of softly burnt caramel giving way to some delightfuly light zesty sherbet flavours. Chris informs us this is still a work in progress for them, so it will most probably have a different profile if you come to try it one day, It would be great to hear how this chocolate develops for them. Caramelised white chocolate.
To conclude our bar tasting we progress back to a high percentage cocoa, their 87%. This one has beautiful notes of green coffee beans, richer notes, slightly more tannins and more of a filling texture in the mouth with a smoother melt. The green coffee bean notes give way to green bananas and after notes of subtle roasted milky coffee, somewhat like a cappuccino.
Now we progress to the filled chocolates and Jo excitedly talks us through each one we try, starting with their ever popular sea salt caramel (we were even excitedly told about this one by a Caulker local on our way over on the water taxi, word travels far in these parts!). Jo has found the best way for this one is by caramelising the sugar first and then blending butter and cream in all together with the caramelised sugar. The result is a soft subtly chewy ‘mou’ texture, rather than an oozing caramel texture. Next up is their Maya Temple – whose centre is piped into a Mayan temple shaped mold. The innards of this consist of kuknat rum produced locally, expertly blended with their own white chocolate. The result? No mouth burn, a splendidly smooth texture and flavour. To conclude, we try a chocolate that is synonymous with most peoples childhoods – BCC have named it ‘Island Crunch’ and it is inspired by the ever popular Crunchie bars any of us in the UK will be familiar with. What a way to end our time with Jo and Chris, learning of their passion for Belize and their love of cacao and what it can do for them and the community in which they live and work.
It’s been 10 years now, and they’ve gone from strength to strength, even working on a mission statement for the company. Just from spending the afternoon talking with them you can feel their passion and love, not just for the cacao, but for giving that excitement back to the local community and inspiring the younger generation by helping them see there is a future in commodity such as cacao that is grown in their county, as Chris puts it, “we want to make something from Belize and for Belize, to help the people see that you really can make some good stuff here and to inspire the people of this country”, and as always putting a huge emphasis on employing the local youth to get them interested in business skills and cacao growing and production.
There is that feeling again, that connection and spark of magic, when you meet craft chocolate makers. It’s developed so well in movies such as Chocolat and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but lost in the supermarkets and mass produced chocolate of our modern world. The good news is this magic is alive and well in the shops of craft chocolate makers and other passionate industry experts around the world. That magic is felt because they aren’t in it for themselves, yes they need to earn a living, but there is always that emphasis on and that passion for connecting with, respecting and improving the lives of those at source, those who live and work the cacao in its plant form. As something we should all remember, without those farms and farmers there will be no cacao and we will have no chocolate bars, no Island Crunch and no Maya Mountain. Jo and Chris, we salute you and your chocolate mission, keep making, keep inspiring, and keep that Willy Wonka cape and hat forever present in your shop, because chocolate, like magic, needs believers.