Belize Part I: Taking the Leap

Belize Part I: Taking the Leap

The following blog describes my personal journal as I "take the leap" in the lands of cacao, volunteering my time with Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) in Belize and Cacao Verapaz (CV) in Guatemala, conduct interviews and homestays with cacao farming families,  and indulge in my creative side to unveil the hidden nature of cacao.

Punta Gorda, Belize

February 1, 2016 Belize City "So I hear you're into medicinal herbs." Wink. " I study cacao, not coca." The absurdity of the situation continued. Here I was, my first night in Belize, getting my Tarot fortune read by the quasi-chiropractic quasi-manioc hostel owner. I could smell weed wafting through the window as I watched a man with a pirate bandana give a massage to a young Belizean girl with a stutter. I had not originally planned to stay overnight in Belize City. Then the opportunity came to volunteer my seat for a later flight and a voucher that would cover my flight back home. I viewed it as a small and worthwhile delay. Plus, the Tarot reading may have been the right sign. My keyword "Creativity" accurately describes the skill I’ll need to employ, both to absorb and describe the experiences of chasing this crazy dream of mine.
 "Anything can be creative – you bring that quality to the activity. Activity itself is neither creative nor uncreative. You can paint in an uncreative way. You can sing in an uncreative way. You can clean the floor in a creative way. You can cook in a creative way.   "Creativity is the quality that you bring to the activity you are doing. It is an attitude, an inner approach – how you look at things." (Osho Zen Taro)
  February 2, 2016 Belize City to Punta Gorda Things work out for the better. It would have been a long trip without the overnight in Belize City. The following morning I took the six-hour James bus down to Punta Gorda. My stream of good luck (or nine lives) continues. First, the bus nearly left without me at one of the rest stops. I went chasing after it—and my luggage—just as it was pulling out of the driveway. Second, I avoided having to hitch-hike my way to Punta Gorda. The bus driver dropped me off at the Maya Mountain Cacao drying station about 15 miles along the highway away from the actual office downtown.  There I was, waiting at the side of the road, until the next bus could passed. One day and an hour late, I finally made it to the Maya Mountain Cacao office in Punta Gorda. For the next couple days I shadowed the MMC team to learn about everything, from the history of the chocolate industry in Belize, the chocolate production process, and the dynamics of buying and selling cacao across different levels of intermediaries. There are layers upon layers of politics and cultural nuances that I can only begin to describe (and these will be written up as guest posts in the future). Every conversation, every moment of observation, had something to do with cacao.   3 February 2016 San Antonio, Toledo

The interior of a typical cacao farm house in Santa Elena, Toledo, Belize

Back in the field. The countryside lifestyle feels like  familiar territory in this foreign land. It’s been over a year since I lived out on the farm, the last time goes back  my Fulbright of living  with the coffee farmers in Mexico. Actually there’s a lot in common when it comes to traversing a coffee and a cacao farm: steep slopes, leaves and organic compost on the ground, shade trees, and the background melody of insects and birds. The lifestyle too has similarities: the staple foods are beans and tortillas (here, both made of corn and flour), which are  supplemented by chickens, bananas, oranges and anything else the household  produces. I did a five-night  home stay with Mr. Antonio Coc and his son Daniel who live in  two adjacent houses. It’s more like a mini village of  fifteen family members all living together. During the first two nights I slept on a hammock above a basket of drying cacao beans. The image is romantic. The sleeping quality is,  however, not exactly restful. Though I have tolerance for small spaces, the tight quarters of a single room shared by six people to cook, eat, and sleep together lost its charm by the second day. I no longer take for granted the luxury of personal space and a bedroom of one’s own.   4 February, 2016 San Antonio and San Jose, Toledo

Wet cacao (the seeds with the pulp directly removed from the pod)

  The day begins early, usually around 5:30 am when the sun rises. Miss Delfin served a hearty breakfast of eggs, chicken stew, and flour tortillas. The children ate first so that they could get ready for school. There  is no kitchen table, only a small stool for two people to crouch beside the fire, so by necessity meals are served in rounds. Daniel and I headed out on his motorbike to visit a handful of the cacao farmers. Daniel is a “buyer” for MMC, meaning that he is responsible for purchasing the cacao from farmers in different buying zones. Today we visited the largest buying zone, the community of San Jose, which has an estimated 500 families, or roughly 3,500 people given that the average family size is seven. One hundred of these families sell to MMC. Before cacao, this village was mostly subsistence based off corn and rice. Today, households still grow beans, corn, and rice for their own consumption and more recently pumpkin seeds for export to Guatemala. Only a small percentage of the families have electricity made possible through  a solar panel project a few years ago. For the most part, families do not have electricity or refrigerators and a large portion of their food is subsistence-based. We were invited to lunch at one of the households. They fed us a  big plate of rice with black beans, chicken, and lettuce on the side. Sweet tea—not cacao—is the beverage of choice. We were joined by a teacher who is also a part-time cacao grower. He told me that life in this village is simple but the people enjoy an overall good quality of life. “Do you see starving children?” he asked. No. “Do you see people with sickness and disease?” No. People may not have much income but their land and culture are fertile. The literacy rate is around 60-70% and most people speak at least two languages: English and Mopan Maya or Q’echi. Yet, there are still discrepancies when it comes to access to basic resources. Cacao is enabling families to gradually advance, though progress is not just about the economics. Sometimes it’s the chit-chat that matters most when it comes to success in the chocolate industry. Done right, buying cacao is a multi-step process to build relationships over time even if that means going against the economic logic of efficiency. Business can be brutal. But that does not mean it can cut corners or shortchange the people who make chocolate real.   8 February 2016 Punta Gorda (back from the farm) Shower. I could not feel more grateful to have water running over my body. While on the farm I had bathed in a wooden hut using a plastic cup and bucket of cold water to rinse off the sweat and dirt. Nothing felt so good as the small luxury of hot water. Light. That is the next gift. The miracle of light past sunset seems so much more precious after having spent the past few nights without electricity. Morning coffee. The smallest big indulgence to start the day. Ironically, since arriving here in Belize I have missed out on both morning coffee and chocolate. I cracked today and bought a cup of cheap stuff off the street. Papaya. I have an obsession with fresh fruit and vegetables, which are not usually part of the farm diet. At the Punta Gorda seaside market I bought a whole papaya and started eating it right then and there. Some American tourist passed by and I heard the wife whisper “Poor girl, she must not have a lot of money.” Damn who cares. I am happy looking like a fool with the papaya in my face.  
Taking a break to enjoy fruits of the farm

Taking a break to enjoy fruits of the farm

Mask Behind the Mast


“Everything dark comes from within. So perfect at times, and also so dam destructive.” ~Black Swan

The Mast Brothers’ chocolate is seductive. It’s easy to fall in love with the exotic flair, perfect geometric forms, and the wallpaper-like packaging, that invite you to unwrap their bars. These Brooklyn hipsters have played their cards well, they’ve gotten called, and now they have gone bust. (more…)

It’s a Matter of Taste

It’s a Matter of Taste

What happens when you give a group of 30 middle school students chocolate? Do they squirm with delight? Nope.

“It’s gross.” “Yuck.”

To be honest, I was horrified. Here I am trying to tell people to eat better chocolate—when I realize that my own concept of “good” chocolate is not what most kids are used to eating.

I had asked students to evaluate chocolate in terms of taste, and the respective chocolate companies on their pledges to social and environmental sustainability. The activity was immediately off to a bad start when I handed out the cacao beans and showed students how to crack open the shells and munch the bitter nibs. The disillusionment continued as these students moved through the dark end of the chocolate spectrum, tasting bars of 85%, 72%, and 70% cocoa mass.

It would have been horribly easier—and more popular—to throw in a sugary Cadbury Dairy Milk or Kinder bar.

Doing so would have been betrayal of my own beliefs about chocolate. I was on a mission to educate their palates and train the future connoisseurs of high quality chocolate. Yet, what these kids demanded was the sugary milk chocolate that they were familiar to eating. In all fairness a handful of students actually liked the dark chocolate selection. It may not be their fault that they are raised eating sweet milk chocolate. Even my first love of chocolate started with (and I hate to admit) a Hershey's’ peanut butter cup.

Are kids more hard-wired to like sweet?

This motivated me to do some research. It turns out that our taste buds really do change over time and can develop just as bodies and minds do. One study in 2002 by the University of Western Sydney, Australia indicated that female children were slightly more sensitive to tastes sweet, salty, and bitter than are male children. Another study by the University of Copenhagen corroborates this, adding to it that male children have a stronger preference for sweet. Not until around age 13-14 do kids begin to demand less sweet and become more comfortable with bitter. This may also be cultural and overall there is relatively little scientific research on children’s sense of taste and exactly how it changes over time. Because kids have 10,000 taste buds compared to adults who have about 5,000 working taste buds, kids are more sensitive to extreme tastes like bitter and have more proclivity for sugar.

The flavor of chocolate is the most important factor in determining consumer preference, and is the result of a complex process starting from the genetics of the plant to the post-harvest treatment like fermenta tion and drying. At least 800 flavor compounds are associated chocolate, which is even more than fine wine. This flavor will obviously be influenced by the quality of the ingredients, including the non-cocoa ingredients like sugar. Texture will influence our ability to perceive these flavors. By changing the particle size it is possible for more cocoa flavor to emerge with less of the raw cocoa ingredient (Voltz & Beckett, 1997). Grinding chocolate for longer periods of time through a process called “conching” will break down the chocolate into smaller particles.

As chocolate is ground, its chemical matrix will go through a series of alterations to its crystalline structure. According to a talk at the Cambridge Science Museum, the tongue cannot taste particles below 15 micron, which is why chocolate conched for longer periods of time, like the Galaxy bar, has a smaller particle size and thus tastes smoother. This also has to do with the viscosity, which changes how long the particles linger on the tongue. Since sugar is a hydrophobic compound, emulsification allows the fat to come into contact with the sugar, and we perceive this chocolate as smoother.

Flavor perception is the result of a complex process involving different parts of the body: the teeth (touch like snap and mouthfeel), the tongue (sour, bitter, salty, sweet, and unami), the nose (aroma), and the throat (flow, viscosity). From the moment we unwrap a chocolate bar our eyes and nose have already begun to assess the chocolate. The longer we allow chocolate to melt on our tongue, the greater the release of volatiles that increase our perception of flavors (Engelen et al, 2003). Chocolate with a higher viscosity will stay on our tongue for longer (Afoakwat et al, 2008d), which may explain why we can easily perceive the melt-in-your-mouth quality of milk chocolates. Dark chocolate takes longer to go through the full journey of taste to really appreciate its full flavor profile.

Getting kids to like the dark chocolate may not be just a matter of taste, but also a matter of patience.

  1. Sensitivity of taste in children and adults: C. James and D. G. Laing. University of Western Sydney, Australia. Appetite, 24, 68.
Afoakwa, E. O. 2011. Sensory character and flavour perception of chocolates. Chocolate Science and Technology. Wiley. Culter, Jennifer. “The Difference Between the Taste Buds of Adults & Kids.” Demand Media. 20 March 2015. Engelen, L., de Wijk, R. A. Prinz, J.F. Janssen, A.M., Van Der Bilt, A., Weenen, H. & Bosman, F. (2003). A comparison of the effect of added saliva, alpha-amylase and water on texture and flavor perception in semisolid foods. Physiology and Behavior, 78, 805-811. University of Copenhagen. “Girls Have Superior Sense of Taste to Boys.” 18 December 2008. 20 March 2015. Voltz, M. & Beckett, S.T. (1997). Sensory of chocolate. The Manufacturing Confectioner, 77, 49-53.    
The Making and Tasting of Chocolate

The Making and Tasting of Chocolate

Dinner & Dialogue in partnership with the Gates Scholars and the Global Scholars Action Network Tasting can be a great way to engage the senses. Tasting in groups can be a great way to engage people in a lively discussion. In the spirit of bringing action to the table, the Global Scholars Action Network partnered with the Gates Cambridge community to launch Dinner and Dialogue: The Making and Tasting of Chocolate. The discussion topic was “What is good chocolate?” from a multi-disciplinary perspective. After a 15-minute presentation led on the seed-to-bean-to-bar process of making chocolate, participants were invited to explore the concept of “good” chocolate starting with a sensory evaluation of different types of chocolate, including certified (i.e. organic, Fair Trade, vegan), single origins (i.e. Madagascar, Ecuador) and a spectrum of intensity (i.e. 70%, 80%, 85%). With the story of chocolate in mind, students embarked on a Chocolate Challenge to taste and evaluate chocolate. Mindfully tasting
“We are not here to eat chocolate. We are here to taste chocolate. And there’s a difference.”
While it can be tempting to simply pop a square of chocolate in your mouth or gnaw from a chocolate bar, the art of tasting is really a practice of mindfulness (see Headspace). Chocolate is such an incredible food because it can take you on a journey, from the moment you open the package and observe the sheen of the chocolate bar, break off a square to hear the “snap,” and place it on the tip of your tongue. As the chocolate melts you’ll move through waves of sensation, starting with that first impression, then the core or real “essence” of the flavor, and finishing with the memorable aftertaste. That journey can depend on your mood, time of day, and what you ate beforehand. It is about the interaction between you and the chocolate in that particular moment. Students took the first challenge to taste the first sample in complete silence. It actually takes a lot of concentration to taste chocolate, yet so often we consume without really thinking about that process. And it is easy to be swayed by a fancy brand name or how we think the chocolate should taste. Thus, all the chocolates in this exercise were sampled blindly to remove any preconceptions about taste. Critically engaging IMG_7781During this tasting students used flavor wheels developed by TCHO and Chocolopolis as examples of the range of vocabulary that can describe flavor. In the wine industry, there is the Robert-Parker 100-point wine scoring scale; and in the coffee industry there is the Q Coffee System. Yet to my knowledge there is no standardized method for evaluating the quality of chocolate. I developed scorecards based on the wine and coffee criteria to assess the different sensory components like the aroma, first impressions, and aftertaste. Students then ranked each chocolate based on a 5-point scale then decided as a team whether the sample was “bad” “average” or “good.” While the sensory evaluation is one component, assessing good chocolate is really much more complex. The social and environmental factors should be just an important a part of the decision. Unlike other agricultural commodities, cacao thrives in biodiverse environments when it has the protection of a shade canopy and is surrounded by pollinators like an insect called the midge. So cacao grown in the traditional, or organic manner, can arguably be in line with efforts of environmental conversation. Certifications that specifically target the environment include Bio-Siegel (Germany), Soil Association Organic Standard (UK), and the Organic Certification.
"A brilliant way to connect and build ideas around the issue of ‘ethical farming’ while enjoying many varieties of our favourite treats!” (Student of the University of Cambridge)
There is also the people component. 90% of the cacao in the world is grown on small-scale farms and yet these farmers receive only 3-5% of the final price of the product. This is where certifications like the Fairtrade Mark, Fair for Life, the Ethical Award, and independent seals like It’s One World incorporate social standards like decent working conditions and reinvesting in children’s education. Each of the companies featured during the tasting matched at least one criteria of social or environmental “goodness” to varying degrees. Below is a snapshot of the different certifications of chocolates from the tasting. TastingResults2 Certifications tell one side of the story but usually not the complete picture. In fact, some of the best chocolates I know do not carry any certification. The challenge for many smallholder farmers, especially those in remote areas or without local structures of community organization, is the lack of information and market access to these certification schemes. Thus, it’s important to think about the overall transparency when evaluating good chocolate. In general the more information you know about where the chocolate comes from, in terms of where it is grown and how it is made, the easier it is to evaluate the goodness of chocolate in its holistic sense. Terms like “bean-to-bar” and “single origin,” and “direct trade” are all good indications of a more transparent value-chain.
"It was a taste-opening, multisensory experience that has heightened my awareness of the social context in which chocolate is produced. Each chocolate has its own story to tell, both with regard to its origins and its complex flavours. And the company was superlative!" (Student of Oxford University)
Consciously acting IMG_7776The final question remains: How do I support good chocolate? One of the best ways is to start with your own consumption choices. By the end of the session students were eager to find out where they could purchase their favorite chocolate. There are a handful of online retailers like CocoaRunners and Bean to Bar Chocolate and specialty chocolate shops in the UK like Paul A Young Fine Chocolates Ltd and Cocoa Cabana. In Cambridge, the wholefood grocery shop Arjuna offers a nice selection. It can also be a fun social activity to discover great chocolates. One example of a social enterprise that is helping customers discover and support good chocolate is The Chocolate Garage in Palo Alto, California. This model supports “Happy Chocolate,” with direct-trade and bean-to-bar chocolate that connects small cacao growers, artisanal chocolate makers, and consumers. Chocolate is about making happy connections and being conscious of the role you play in the overall value chain.
“We realised that there was a lot more to good chocolate and the need to change peoples thinking in this area.” (Student of the University of Cambridge)
Tasting chocolate is an individual and collective journey, which begins the first decision of which chocolate to purchase. It is a process of discovery that can open us to new ways of thinking about how we interact with chocolate and with each other. And not to be forgotten, active tasting is about active being. It is about being present to fully appreciate the beauty, complexity, and captivating quality of chocolate. IMG_7782  

Fairtrade in the UK: Mars Chocolate Announces Partnership with Fairtrade Sourcing Program

Here in the UK, Fair Trade products abound. Grocery stores are lined with Fair Trade products from Divine Chocolate to major household chocolate brands like Dairy Milk, Green & Black’s, Maltesers, and KitKat. Shop online and you can find an array of household products like wooden stools and even Fairtrade Fashion. It’s no wonder that Fairtrade seems so omnipresent: the UK is the largest market for Fairtrade products. 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the FAIRTRADE in the UK and the next question is: What will 2015 hold in store? One of the most popular chocolate bars in the UK—the Mars bar—is soon to be made Fairtrade. Or, at least sourcing some ingredients according to Fairtrade standards. Customers may not notice a change on the label because this time the focus is not on the certification. This month Mars Chocolate announced its partnership with the new Fairtrade Sourcing Program (FSP), a new scheme launched in 2014 “to enable producers to sell more cocoa, sugar and cotton on Fairtrade terms” (Source: Fairtrade International). As it currently stands, the FAIRTRADE Mark demands that 100% of the product is Fairtrade; thus for a chocolate bar to be FAIRTRADE certified not only the cacao but all other ingredients like sugar must be purchased according to Fairtrade standards. This can be challenging for chocolate if the cacao is sourced Fairtrade but the sugar is not, especially in countries like Switzerland where coveted traditional Swiss chocolate is made from locally grown beet sugar (Source: Fairtrade and Sugar). Under the new Fairtrade Sourcing Program, businesses can commit to purchaing products according to the Fairtrade standards even if not all ingredients carry the Fairtrade mark. So it takes the focus off the certification and labeling and emphasizes the supply chain and sourcing. Bottom line, this program could make it easier for large companies like Mars to scale up purchases of Fairtrade cacao. The goal of the FSP is “more Fairtrade for everyone.” But we’ve got to ask: Is this more of a commitment to helping the smallholder or to the large corporation? It seems like there is huge market potential from the smallholder perspective. Globally, only 1.2% of the world’s cacao is sold on Fairtrade terms (Source: Fairtrade International). In Cote D’Ivore, where Mars will be focusing this new initiative, roughly 30,000 Fairtrade certified producers are capable of selling 75,000 tons of cacao on the market, yet only 16% of their production is actually sold as Fairtrade. (Source: Interview with FortinBley). According to Mars, the new scheme would increase premiums paid to West African cooperatives to over $2 million by 2016. (Source: Press release). These premiums can be re-invested to support programs like training and increasing yields and disease resistant crops. While this is sweet news for the confectionary industry, and does represent a positive step in promoting more transparent sourcing, it’s important not to lose sight of what good chocolate is all about: quality. Even if this partnership does bring Mars “one step closer to sustainable, ethically sourced cocoa becoming the norm in the chocolate industry,” (Blas Maquivar, president of Mars Chocolate UK, Source: The Scotland Herald), one cannot help but wonder the if helping smallholder cacao farmers is best done by promoting a large corporation like Mars. Yet, the sustainability discourse is also changing. Large companies, according to the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) Review of 2014 may be an important part of the equation to drive market growth for sustainable commodities. Initiatives like the Mars partnership with the Fairtrade Sourcing Program are part of a larger equation to address sustainability from a global scale. Yet there is no panacea for trade-offs that may arise. Would sourcing in bulk diminish the quality? What are the implications for small- and medium-scale chocolate makers? How might this impact the cacao farms that don’t have access to the program? And lastly, will this make consumers buy more Mars bars? My dentist is already starting to squirm.

Una “mocha” del realismo mágico en el cine hispano

Este artículo fue escrito para una clase de español en la Universidad de Cambridge.    Una de las películas más conocidas del cine hispano es Como agua para chocolate, dirigida por Alfonso Arau y estrenada en 1992. Es una adaptación de la novela homónima de Laura Esquivel, que también escribió el guión. Esta colaboración real entre la pareja ha ganado elogios por su uso creativo del realismo mágico, un género también utilizado en la literatura como en las obras de Gabriel García Márquez. Usando la comida como símbolo de las emociones, Como agua para chocolate se trata del doloroso amor entre los dos personajes principales, Tita y Pedro, durante la revolución mexicana, de 1910 a 1919. Durante esa época, es una tradición que la hija menor no se case sino que se quede en casa para cuidar de sus papás; por eso, Tita está “encarcelada” figurativamente en el hogar y la cocina con la expectativa de cuidar a su Mamá Elena. Sin embargo, al amor no se le puede imponer reglas y el fruto prohibido es siempre más tentador. En una las escenas que captura los placeres sensoriales de la comida es cuando Tita está en el metate moliendo el chile para hacer el guajolote. Pedro la ve y está en trance por el poder mágico que exhibe Tita cuando transforma la comida. Esta imagen de la mujer moliendo también aparece en la pintura mesoamericana para representar este doble paralelo de la mujer oprimida-poderosa. Otra película del cineasta hispano es el Norte (dirigida por Gregori Nava, 1983) que se trata de una familia guatemalteca que migra hacia el norte, los EUA, pasando por México. La trama empieza con la historia de Arturo, un productor de café en Guatemala que es matado por las tropas militares. Sus dos hijos, Rosa y Enrique deciden huir de su tierra natal e irse hacia el norte. A lo largo de la jornada, están sujetos a la discriminación por sus raíces indígenas. Realmente hay muchos paralelos entre Como agua para chocolate y el Norte. Las dos películas tienen el tema de la frontera EUA-México del trasfondo. Son tanto historias de la familia como de los personajes individuales, y tratan de la transformación de la identidad y del anhelo por tener otra vida. Son historias del sufrimiento pero también del amor, amargo y dulce, a la vez. Aunque ni el chocolate ni el café tienen un papel protagónico, este espíritu de dualidad es característico de las dos películas.