(An unintentionally timely topic just days before that favorite chocolate orgy, otherwise known as Valentine's Day!).
Whenever I travel, I like to visit local markets to see what's available and in season. In Guatemala, my travel companion and I ventured into the labyrinthine covered and outdoor markets of Santa Elena and cobbled together the fixins for a tasty lunch that made a certain salad lover a happy woman. We also bought a sweet orange that was halved and rubbed with salt and ground toasted pepitos (pumpkin seeds), and a bag of sour green mango mixed with salt, lime, and chili. On a 90 degree day, both were as rejuvenating as a frosty bottle of Gatorade.
In Belize, we didn't come across any outdoor markets during our travels, but we did visit a few local grocery stores. My favorite was Wallen's market in Placencia. Walking down the candy aisle, which was dominated by imported British Cadbury and American Hershey, you would have no idea that the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, is indigenous to the area and closely associated with the local Mayan heritage. Along with Guatemala and the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Belize is part of what some call the Cradle of Chocolate. Which prompted a question: why wasn't I finding any locally produced chocolate?
As I was paying for a bottle of water at Wallen's, a shiny golden object on a shelf behind the cashier grabbed my attention. It was as bright as one of Willy Wonka's precious tickets. I did a double take when I read the sign. The golden wrappers contained chocolate bars made from organic cacao and conventional cane sugar, both locally grown in Belize. The clouds parted and the angels sang. Local chocolate actually does exist! It's even organic. And it's appropriately packaged like precious gold ingots. This aspiring locavore felt as lucky as a photographer snapping a picture of a lake at the exact moment when the Loch Ness Monster emerges with the Yeti riding on its back. I could gorge on chocolate and feel smug in the knowledge that I was supporting local Mayan cacao farmers and a local chocolatier.
The miracle bars are made by a company called Goss Chocolate. I bought one of each chocolate bar (US$1.50 each) — dark and milk — then rushed them from the air-conditioned store to my beachside cabana before they melted.
I fully intended to stow the bars in my fridge and nibble on them over the next few days — no really, I swear — but my curiosity got the best of me and I unwrapped each of the bars to try a bite. Tearing open those golden foil wrappers made me feel just like Charlie Bucket. One nibble led to a second, then a third, and, well, let's just say those little buggers never made it into the fridge. I mean, c'mon, how often can you eat chocolate and simultaneously feel virtuous? I had to go back the next day to buy two more bars for my photos. Then maybe a couple more just to make sure they tasted as good as I remembered them tasting the day before. Oh, the hardships I endure for you all, more concerned about chronicling stories and photos for my blog than my own health! First lobsters, now chocolate. What next?
The dark chocolate (pictured above) was quite good. The mouth feel was rich and silky smooth, more French-style than Spanish, and the flavor nicely fruity with a hint of roasted coffee and caramel. The bar was correctly labeled "dark," as it is what is sometimes called semisweet, not the bittersweet that I tend to prefer. Surprisingly, the milk chocolate (pictured at top of post, somewhat melted because the second store was not air-conditioned) was even better. Far more chocolate flavor and complexity than you usually find in a milk chocolate bar. I later learned that the cacao solids make up a whopping 49% of the milk chocolate bar. The dark hovers between 60-65%, depending on the intensity of the cacao beans used in each batch.