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Jun 2, 2020

Chocolate Making – a Mayan Art Form!

The history of the cacao in the Mayan culture dates back to thousands of years ago. The cacao beans or seeds were used for trading and also used in drinks, food and rituals. Fast forward to present day the cacao seeds still play a central role in the lives of many Mayan families in Belize. They are using cacao to support their livelihoods; strengthen their communities and preserve and share their cultural practices.  One family in Maya Center Village started this about ten years ago when they opened their chocolate business.  Julio and Eleadora Saqui created a business called the Che’il Mayan Products. In this first part of our visit to their facility, we take a look at how the family has set its self apart by creating organic chocolate bars. Here is the story with Andrea Polanco.


Andrea Polanco, Reporting

Che’il Mayan Chocolate started about ten years ago. It’s a family owned business in Maya Center village along the Southern Highway. Co-owner Julio Saqui says he figured out his way to an organic locally produced brand of chocolate by trial and error.


Julio Saqui, Co-owner, Che’il Mayan Chocolate

“Ten years ago, I started making chocolate and there was nothing coming out of it. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And so ten years ago I got the opportunity to go out of the country to see how people were making chocolates and all I needed was one shot.”


And ever since then, the family owned business took off. Che’il Mayan Chocolate now offers chocolate tours to give visitors an authentic farm to factory experience. It starts out with an educational walk on the farm to learn about the cacao with farmer Narciso Saqui.


Narciso Saqui, Cacao Farmer

“This is how they bear fruit and not its canopy like other fruit trees. They come right off the branches all the way downwards to the base of trunk where it has flowers here. So, that is where these fruits start from; from the pollination of the flower to maturity we wait three months or four months sometimes because of different times and different varieties. We have nine to eleven varieties here of this fruit here on this farm.”


And once the cacaos are harvested, the pods are cracked open and the beans are collected. Then they are transferred to small facility where they are stored to ferment. After the beans have fermented, they are then dried and roasted. And from there they are taken into the factory to be processed. It’s time consuming work – a labor of love for the Saqui family.  And here at the processing facility, where visitors are eighty percent tourists, the Saqui’s are keen on making this educational. So, they have designed the tour in a way that visitors experience the authentic, traditional way of making chocolate in the Mayan culture. It is personalized in such a way that visitors get to create their own chocolates by grinding their cocoa beans on this Mayan stone called a Kah.


But to meet the growing demands for his products – it is almost impossible for Saqui to create orders a hundred percent on this traditional stone. And for that reason they have created a balance between mass production of bars and authenticity which serve as a critical part of this brand’s identity.


Julio Saqui

“I always keep the Mayan culture as my center piece but at the same time twisting it a little but so that the people can appreciate what other products can be made in chocolate processing by not losing the cultural, traditional way of making chocolate. I don’t want to lose the traditional way of making chocolate because it also does give the chocolate an authentic taste and authentic flavor. Because I didn’t go to school to make chocolate, I was trained by my late mom how to make chocolate. So, I took her knowledge and I took some experience that I have from making chocolate and I created a hybrid. Thus, making our chocolates a lot more different from the other chocolatiers in Belize.  I want to keep that as is. I don’t want to lose the culture but I also don’t want to lose how we keep our product from getting out there and being mass produced.”


And Saqui says he has broken the rules in order strike that balance – the roasting of the cacao beans is fifty percent manual and fifty percent mechanical – but authentically Belizean – and still very much Mayan.


Julio Saqui

“We mix those together to give us an authentic flavor. Our chocolate is different and I can tell you that because a lot of the people that comes always tell me wow how comes your chocolate is so different from the rest?  But there are certain things we are doing that are traditional and cultural and we are going to keep it that way. Whereas other processors are just using these electric roasters or just roasting it the way they know it by the books. I don’t go by the books, I break all rules and I make my own rule the way I want it. I guess that is what makes me Che’il – the wild Maya, right?”


And it is this ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that led to the creation of Che’il Mayan Chocolate’s latest chocolate bar – the traveller’s snack bar – his take on candy bar with filling – think Snickers or Mars– but this is healthier, more delicious and it is locally made. Che’il Mayan Chocolates produces a number of other traditional chocolate bars, some are flavoured with vanilla, chili, mint and other locally grown spices and herbs – but no fillers and hardeners.  It is such a delicate process that these chocolates must be processed at particular times and stored at the right temperature. Everything is processed, packaged and sold right inside this facility in Maya Center Village.


Julio Saqui

“It’s just the way that we process our chocolate and how we flavor them. We do not use any artificial flavorings in our chocolate. When we are processing our chocolate bars, as you’ve seen, it’s all pure chocolate. We only use natural ingredients. We don’t use anything that is artificial or synthetic because once you add something that is synthetic or artificial into pure chocolate it is no longer organic. It has changed conventional chocolate. We only make pure chocolate. So, what are our ingredients? It is basically sugar and vanilla and three other ingredients that we add into our chocolate that we don’t want to tell anybody because we don’t want them to know right and we keep it secret.   When we do our chocolate, we do it in such a way where the tempering is done properly so that the chocolate just melts on your tongue or your palate and the after taste when you eat it just gives you that fine, unexplainable flavor which is quite unique from all the other chocolatiers.”


And with a unique position in the market – Che’il Mayan Chocolate has leveraged this to capture tourism dollars – but he also wants to get his product out to the local market.


Julio Saqui

“Our chocolate is made differently. It is grown differently and our whole processing is quite unique from the other processors and I think that is what keeps us on the top so far.  I have found, I guess, a unique position in the chocolate industry and I want to maintain that position because that so far has taken us to the level that I want and now that I am at that level, I want to go to the next level which is now topping the Belizean market. I want to be able to get to everybody’s pocket and have it there so that they can enjoy it.”


Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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