Friday, August 10, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 21: A bonanza for chocolaholics at the Cacao Eco-Museum in Tikul

Sliced cacao pod reveals fresh beans, the first step to a tasty chocolate treat. Our next stop on the Ruta Puuc tour was the Cacao Eco-Museum at Tikul (sometimes spelled Ticul). This was not actually part of our original schedule, but our guide persuaded us to skip a lesser Maya ruin and substitute a stop at this fascinating combination of cacao plantation, chocolate museum, and Maya archaeological site. Given the high-quality experience we had at Tikul, and what I later read about the stop we skipped, we felt we made the right decision. However, we were amused to find that our guide may have been partly motivated by the presence of a girlfriend at the Eco-Museum. Ah, well, that's Mexico!

The Eco-Museum

A pretty Maya woman in a traditional huipil met us at the reception booth. All the staff wore traditional clothing and the women's huipils were beautifully hand-embroidered. The Cacao Eco-Museum is located near Tikul (sometimes spelled Ticul), 80 km (49.7 mi) south of Mérida. The site is open 365 days a year from 8 AM to 5 PM. Adult admission is 90 pesos ($6.80 USD). Admission for children and those 65+ is 60 pesos ($4.56 USD).

Heliconia, a distant relative of the Bird of Paradise, grows in Tikul's gardens. Much more than cacao grows on the grounds of the Eco-Museum. The extensive flower gardens include this heliconia, as well as a large number of native plants grown as living displays of the Maya world's flora. The Cacao Eco-Museum is the brainchild of three Belgians: Eddy Van Belle, Dominque Personne and Mathieu Brees. Belgian chocolate has become world-famous and it seems appropriate that these chocolatiers should complete the circle by bringing their craft back to its place of origin. The museum was inaugurated on July 5, 2011.

A lovely Ginger plant bloomed in another garden. Sometimes called the Torch Ginger, the plant does, in fact, resemble a flaming torch. This museum has an unusual design, in that it is not contained in one building. Instead, the displays are housed in a series of small Maya-style thatched huts, reached by an asphalt path that wanders through groves of trees, small fields of cacao plants, and gardens displaying the wide variety of plants used by ancient and modern Maya for food, clothing, medicine, and other purposes.

Cordyline, sometimes known as Ti Plant*. The brilliant red leaves of this Cordyline stood out against the mostly green and brown background. The gardens are beautifully designed and ecologically balanced. The displays in the thatched huts dispersed along the path tell the cultural, religious, and economic story of cacao, and demonstrate the role it played in day-to-day Maya life. In the last hut, museum staff showed us the ancient, multi-step process through which dried cacao beans are transformed into a delicious cup of hot chocolate. All the displays are accompanied by signs in both Spanish and English.

*My thanks to Ron Parsons for these plant identifications. Ron is an expert on the plants of Mexico, and has a website called Wildflowers and Plants of Central Mexico.

How it all started

Maya hieroglyph for kakaw, or cacao. Paleo-botanists believe that the cacao plant originated in Brazil and that the beans gradually migrated up into Mesoamerica through ancient trade networks. The Olmecs (1500 BC - 400 BC) operated a great trading empire and had large settlements in Chiapas, Yucatan, and Guatemala, all areas where cacao could be grown. In fact, the Maya word "kakaw" is of Olmec origin and the first recorded use of the term was in 400 BC, at the end of the Olmec period. Maya writing was the best developed of any in Mesoamerica. It used a combination of symbols to express both concepts and phonetic syllables, allowing the expression of abstract ideas. The modern word "chocolate" comes from the Maya words "chokoh", meaning hot, and "ha", meaning water. Prior to the Spanish arrival, the Maya consumed chocolate exclusively in the hot liquid form. After many attempts spanning several centuries, the Maya hieroglyphic code was finally broken in the 1970s by a team of archaeologists, linguists, and artists. What the deciphered script revealed was an ancient world far richer and more complex, as well as far more violent, than what scientists had previously believed. It also revealed that cacao, and the drink made from it, played a central role in Maya life.

Chocolate was considered a sacred drink, intimately involved with religious practices. Cacao had its own god, Ek Chuah, who carried a fan and wore black paint on his skin. Cacao beans and cups of chocolate were sometimes left as offerings in ancient graves. To the Maya, the cacao pod and the dark, liquid chokoh ha resembled the human heart and its dark blood. As a result, cacao and chocolate appear to have been part of the rituals surrounding human sacrifice. In the illustration above, the cacao tree bears a distinct resemblance to the Maya "Tree of Life", with its roots in the underworld, its trunk in day-to day-reality, and its canopy forming the heavens.

Ancient tools used for grinding cacao beans. Interestingly, Ek Chuah was also the god of merchants. Extensive and complex trade networks existed both within the Maya world and between it and the rest of Mesoamerica. Travel was dangerous and the merchants went armed. At night, they burned copal incense as an offering to Ek Chuah in hopes of securing his protection. Since Mesoamerica had no pack animals, everything had to be carried on the merchant's back, or that of his servants or slaves. Weight and bulk were important factors and traveling merchants therefore favored low-weight, high-value goods. Cacao beans fit the bill, and even came to be used as currency in an economy that lacked metal money. The Aztecs took this a step further and set specific prices based on the beans: a tomato was worth one bean, an avocado cost three, and "a good turkey hen" could be bought for 100 "full" or 120 "shrunken" beans.

Cover of an incense burner found on the south coast of Guatemala. This fine sculpture shows a young woman emerging from a conical mound of cacao beans. In her hands she cradles a pot containing several cacao pods.

Funeral vase showing the glyph for Kakaw. The symbol is the left of the two shown just below the curved handle. The vase once contained chocolate and was placed as an offering in the tomb of a person of elite status. In another tomb, scientists found DNA from human skin in vessels containing chocolate. Apparently, after the body was ritually washed the water was used to make the chocolate. Whether the ritual involved actually drinking the chocolate is unknown.

Wealthy aristocrats of the 17th Century enjoy cups of chocolate. In 1502, Christopher Columbus became the first European to encounter cacao beans. He stopped a Maya trading canoe on his fourth voyage and noted that they possessed a supply of "almonds" which they used as money. Chocolate may have first been brought back to Spain by Hernán Cortéz, who sampled the drink in the court of Mexica (Aztec) Emperor Moctezuma. The emperor certainly did enjoy his chocolate, reportedly drinking 50 cups a day. Chocolate's popularity gradually spread throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries. However, it was a considerable time before any but the wealthy could afford the drink. Mexico produced nearly all the world's chocolate until the beginning of the 20th Century. Then, cultivation began in many other countries in a bid to increase supply and lower costs. Today West Africa produces 70% of the world's cacao, with nearly half of that coming from only one country, Ivory Coast. Currently Mexico only produces 1% of the world's total, and most of this is an unfermented variety used for hot chocolate. The Eco-Museum founders hope to encourage "boutique" manufacturers in Mexico who will produce high quality chocolate products.

Growing and harvesting cacao

Our path led down through a grove of cacao trees, set in a jungle clearing. Today, cacao production is relatively uncommon in Yucatan because of the harsh climate and poor soil. Although the Yucatan Peninsula is covered with thick jungle, the soil covering the underlying limestone platform is thin. Large scale production is thus impractical. However, the ancient Maya did not attempt mass production. This was, after all, a drink for the elites, and even then only for special occasions. The early Maya discovered that the Yucatan area is dotted with rejolladas, (dry cenotes). Because these are depressed areas, they collect a thicker soil base through erosion. In addition, rejolladas tend to be tree-shaded and humid, creating micro-climates that are ideal for cacao growing. Even when not used for cacao cultivation, the rejolladas remain mystic places to the Maya, and are treated with reverence.

Theobroma Cacao is the formal name for the cacao tree. It is native to tropical climates and grows between the latitudes of 20 degrees North to 20 degrees South of the Equator at an altitude of between sea level to 900 m (2953 ft). Cacao trees need humidity and heat, but also must be shaded from direct sunlight. Accordingly, they are often raised near banana trees as well as under wood trees like mahogany and cedar. The cacao is remarkably long-lived, with a lifespan of as much as 50 years. Generally the tree begins to produce at around 4-5 years. Ninety percent of cacao is raised by small farmers, and they often use techniques that hark back to the most ancient times. However, in the last 10 years grafting has gained some favor. In this way, farmers can ensure quality by selecting grafts from the trees that are the most resistant to disease and insects. When they fall to the ground, the cacao leaves provide mulch, and also shelter the small flies that will pollinate the plant later.

The cacao fruit is called a mazorca. The usual size of a mazorca is around 30 cm (11.8 in) long and 10 cm (3.9 in) wide. The average weight is 450 g (1 lb). The color usually ranges from reddish to green, but this will change to yellow or orange as the fruit matures. Each mazorca contains 20 to 40 beans enveloped in a sticky, white pulp. The mazorca shown in the first photo of this posting is an example of a mature fruit. The cocoa tree is described by botanists as "cauliforus", meaning that the flowers and fruits grow directly from the trunk, as you can see above. Although an individual tree can produce 10,000 blossoms each year, only about 40 mazorcas will result.  Those 40 fruits will ultimately produce 2 kg (4.4 lbs) of chocolate.

Mazorcas are harvested twice a year, in May and December.  While other fruits are picked by hand, the cacao mazorca is harvested by machete or by a blade fixed on a long handle (see above). Before cutting, workers tap each fruit lightly, determining ripeness by sound. The size of the cacao bean is determined by the variety of the mazorca. Different bean sizes require adjustments in fermentation and drying times. Immediately after harvesting, the mazorca is cut lengthwise, and the beans and pulp are removed and taken to the fermentation area.

Mazorcas rest on dried cacao beans. The fermentation of the pulp is very important because it determines the flavor and aroma of the resulting chocolate. The process begins as the sugar in the pulp is transformed into alcohol and CO2 through the action of yeasts. The beans are left in wooden boxes covered by banana leaves. The fermentation process can take a number of days, with the fermenting mass regularly turned to allow oxidation. After fermentation, the moisture in the cacao must be reduced from 60% to 6%. The traditional method used by small producers for drying the beans is heat from the sun. In harvest season, it is common to see farmers' patios covered by wooden racks filled with drying cacao beans. The process can take 6-7 days, and the beans are turned regularly to ensure uniform drying.

A zarabanda is used to clean the dried beans. After drying, the beans must be cleaned of stones, mould, or broken pods. This can be done manually or by using a machine called a zarabanda (Spanish for "whirl"). The device above was not identified, but I believe it is an early version of the zarabanda. After they are cleaned, the dried beans are randomly sampled for quality by cutting a few lengthwise in half. Once graded, the beans are packaged in bags and sent off to be manufactured into that Hershey Bar you have come to love. However, before we left the Eco-Museum, our last stop was a hut where we sampled some scrumptious hot chocolate made "the old fashioned way."

Making chocolate the old-fashioned way

A comely señorita awaited us, dressed in her embroidered terno de gala. We weren't quite sure, but we suspected that this was our guide's girlfriend, who may have been his real object in proposing our unscheduled stop at Tikul. The process that she and her male assistant demonstrate here is one that probably goes back to the Olmecs, 3,500 years ago, with a couple of modifications introduced by the colonial Spanish. First, however, chocoholics will be delighted to hear a few facts about health and chocolate. I found this information on the displays at the Eco-Museum, but I was skeptical until I could find some independent researchers, including the Mayo Clinic, who confirmed the claims. I should note that the beneficial aspects are confined to dark chocolate, with a cocoa content of 65% or higher, and limited to less than 85 gr (3 oz) a day. Eaten in this way, chocolate is not fattening, actually reduces cholesterol, helps prevent cavities, does not cause fatty liver disease, does not cause or worsen acne, reduces risk factors for heart disease, and may indeed be an aphrodisiac. Now, have I brightened your day?

The process begins with cooking the beans until they are softened. The ancients would have used a wood fire, rather than propane, and a clay griddle instead of a metal pan, but otherwise the cooking is just the same. The young man is checking the softness of the beans by mixing them in his hand.

Next, the cooked beans are ground on a metate. This part of the process is the "real deal." Metates and the hand-held stone rollers called manos are among the most ancient of kitchen implements, very possibly pre-dating the development of agriculture. This ancient technology can still be found among the day-to-day cooking tools in many Mexican households.

Foaming the chocolate: enter the Spanish. When the correct texture of chocolate paste is achieved, it is added to hot water and the foaming process begins. Before the Spanish arrived, the indigenous people of Mesoamerica achieved a foamy result by repeatedly pouring the mixture back and forth between long-spouted clay pots. Foaming pots have been found in Maya graves of the Pre-Classic period (900 BC to 250 AD). The 16th Century Spanish found the old foaming process cumbersome, so they introduced a device called a molinillo, which still sold in stores throughout Mexico. In the photo above, the man is creating a thick foam by twirling a molinillo between his palms.The ancient people considered this foam to be the "spirit" of the cacao. When we each received a small cup with a delicious sample, it certainly put us in good spirits!

The ancients added a variety of spices, including a "special" ingredient. Our hosts invited us to liven up our chocolate foam with some of the spices seen above. They did note that achote (far left) was not originally used, but is a modern substitute for the human blood from slain warriors that was sometimes added in the old days. I suppose it gave the old-style chocolate that extra little "zing".

This completes Part 21 of my NW Yucatan series. There was a great deal more to the Eco-Museum than I had space to show here, so I will include some of those photos in a later posting on Maya households. Next week, we will visit the ancient ruined city of Sayil, site of a magnificent palace. I always welcome comments and corrections and if you would like to make any, please either use the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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