Seeing that is February, and that chocolate will soon rain from the sky on Feb. 14, I have a story I’ve been meaning to tell you. It involves a journey to Central America, a magnificent thunderstorm deep in the jungle, the prehistoric roar of howler monkeys, a tree house, a giant Wolf spider, cave diving, oppressive jungle heat, and chocolate – lots and lots of chocolate.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
The story actually begins in a snowy industrial section of Boston on a December day when my friend Jessica and I decided to take a tour of a chocolate factory.
Now, there are no golden tickets in this story but there was a brochure that gray and miserable afternoon that promised adventure, and warmth, and a week of chocolate in a place called the Cotton Tree Lodge near Punta Gorda, Belize.
Taza Chocolate in Somerville, Mass., makes stone-ground artisan chocolate. Its flavors are so rich and gritty with bright acidic high notes that a square or two is completely interesting and satisfying. But what makes Taza Chocolate special is its socially responsible approach to chocolatemaking. Their factory has almost no waste. Its founders personally know the farmers who grew their cacao beans, they have slept on the mud floors of their homes, and walked their jungle farms.
That’s what makes fair trade chocolate extraordinary – all the stuff you can’t see. Taza’s beans are grown in the Dominican Republic by local growers organized into cooperatives. The business is financially and environmentally stable and community-oriented. Basically, no mean people or practices are involved. It’s stone-ground chocolate that has a heart and mind.
The people running Taza are all young, happy, and eco-alert. They even sell hip T-shirts alongside their chocolate products. They are self-proclaimed chocolate geeks immersed in the Oaxacan treatment of chocolate. The whole package is pretty impressive.
And yet the tour that gloomy day in Taza’s factory was no Willy Wonka experience. It was crowded and the highlight was watching an old Italian-made cacao bean grinder painted fire engine red do its work.
But the brochure enticing one to attend Chocolate Week at the Cotton Tree Lodge to learn where chocolate comes from did stoke the embers of my imagination. I imagined streets paved in dark chocolate where everyone was happy and warm and far away from the hustle and edge of a cold city. A place where I would become mellow and come back with a tan.
Sure enough, in just a few months I would catch my first glimpse of the rain forest from a jungle plane as it swooped in low to land in Punta Gorda, Belize.