Farm to table freshness and food security in Belize, Central America

IMG_9122 copyWhen you go on vacation, or (if you’re lucky enough) to live in the tropics, you will discover an impressive variety of unique, delightful fruits and vegetables that cannot be found anywhere else but (ah, yes!) … the tropics. Cassava, the starchy root of a shrubby tree, is among them.

Cassava root, being high in carbohydrates and nutrients, has an illustrious history as a major staple food in the developing world, providing a basic diet for over half a billion people. Extensively cultivated as an annual crop in tropical and subtropical regions, cassava (also known as yuca, manioc, and arrowroot) is starchy and rich in vitamin C, phosphorus and calcium. When dried into a powdery, pearly extract, it is known as tapioca.

When I first came across an actual, in-the-flesh cassava root (before it was ever processed, packaged, and displayed for sale on the shelf!), I had just moved to tropical Belize, a tiny country just south of Mexico and east of Guatemala, with coastline along the Caribbean Sea, where cassava grows abundantly year-round, as the climate offers ideal growing conditions.

img_0789I was volunteering and living with a host family in southern Belize, where my friends have been cultivating fruit trees, corn, rice, and vegetables on their sprawling organic farm for the past thirty years.

As we were working in the garden one (hot, humid) day, my friend Jack said to his wife, “Looks like the cassava is ready….” He bent forward, grabbed onto a branch growing low to the ground, and in one forceful heave-ho, extracted a dark brown, foot-long tuber.

“You can eat that?” I asked, bewildered.

“Aaah, yea, mon,” Barb replied in “Kriol” (Belize’s unique variation of English), as Jack pulled up a few more roots and handed them to her. “It’s delicious,” she assured me.

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Later that night my host mother showed me how to prepare the cassava, and we enjoyed a nourishing, satisfying dinner together. From that day on, I’ve been hooked… It wasn’t long before I bought an acre of fertile land, became a resident and started planting my own garden of fruit trees, herbs and vegetables. (Thanks, Jack and Barb!)

The beloved hero Robinson Crusoe of the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe, in a desperate attempt to survive on a tropical island after being shipwrecked, sets out first in an earnest search for the cassava root, as he describes, “which the [indigenous], in all that climate, make their bread of, but I could find none”….

Cassava is the third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics, after corn and rice. Cassava is a highly productive tree with roots that grow faster than other staple crops, making it an important survival food in developing third-world countries, including Belize. Cassava is a traditional, staple food for the indigenous Garifuna, who use it to make flatbread, sweet pudding, and hearty soups.

Parama Williams with Garifuna drummers in Punta Gorda 2016A couple years after I became a proud land owner in the Toledo district of southern Belize, I discovered Cotton Tree Lodge, a special place where I would become the Manager and Certified Massage Therapist at the Wellness Center and Spa. Nestled deep in the jungle beside a pristine, emerald green river, Cotton Tree Lodge offers visitors all the rustic authenticity of an environmentally conscious eco-lodge, including tours to local Mayan ruins, waterfalls, caves, and snorkeling in the nearby Caribbean Sea.

As a guest at Cotton Tree Lodge, you get the pleasure of meeting a staff of friendly, helpful locals who take pride in both their work and their unique culture. My friend Maria Cal, one of the most dedicated and experienced members of our staff, has worked full time at the eco-lodge for eight years as the Food and Beverage Manager. She is a notably detail-oriented, conscientious and experienced manager and chef, having honed her craft over the years, carefully planning the menu for each week and serving up a noteworthy array of international fare.

img_0808Maria is a resident of San Felipe, a Mayan village just a few miles down the road from Cotton Tree Lodge. Early in the morning, like clockwork, I hear the rumble of the motorcycle as Maria’s husband drops her off daily at the Lodge to start preparing the breakfast buffet at 6 AM.

This morning Maria greeted me with a smile as she donned her apron, tied her long black hair in a neat bun and said, “Today I’ll be making cassava pudding.”

Maria Cal, mother of three children, was born and raised in San Felipe village in southern Belize. Her mother is of Kekchi Mayan descent and her father of Spanish descent, originally from Livingston, Guatemala.

Belize, for such a tiny country, is surprisingly diverse in culture. Like many residents, Maria speaks four different languages: her native Kekchi Mayan, Spanish, Kriol, and English. Unlike the surrounding countries where Spanish is primarily spoken, English is an official language in Belize and all the locals speak fluent English, making international travel to this tropical, sun-kissed paradise comfortable aimg_4506nd convenient for North American tourists.

“I started cooking when I was thirteen,” Maria says. “My friends taught me in the village and I also taught myself how to cook because I really wanted to learn.”

The village of San Felipe is one of a cluster of tiny Mayan villages where residents live mostly in simple, thatch roof huts and learn from a young age to grow their own food, raise livestock, chickens, and cultivate their own gardens. Located in relative isolation, these villages offer few job opportunities beyond selling produce from one’s own farm in the local market.

Maria takes pride in being one of a handful of fortunate residents who enjoy a steady, reliable income from her work at Cotton Tree Lodge, which is dedicated to sustainable tourism and supporting local families by providing opportunities for talented, hard-working people like Maria.

“I love working at Cotton Tree Lodge. It’s a nice place — an eco-lodge in the jungle, in nature. Here we serve fresh food from our garden….”

img_4529As the Manager of the Wellness Center and Spa at the Lodge, I enjoy helping out with the planning and preparation of healthy, delicious meals for our visitors and guests. All of the meals at Cotton Tree Lodge feature fresh, organic fruits, herbs and vegetables from our very own garden and fruit trees.

“We have a great staff,” Maria says, “We all get along and work together to make the best meals possible for our guests.

“Cotton Tree Lodge is a nice place to stay,” Maria says.

eating cashewAlthough I am originally from the US, five years ago I chose for many reasons to abandon the modern conveniences and privileged lifestyle in which I was raised to embark on the adventurous journey of homesteading in the rural tropics of Belize. I am at least attempting to blaze my own trail here, deep in the jungle. It’s… not for the faint of heart.

Instead of shopping in the climate-controlled, fluorescent-lit aisles of a commercialized grocery store like the vast majority of my fellow Americans, I enjoy the unparalleled satisfaction of frequent forward-bending and getting my hands dirty in the wet, fertile soil as I harvest fresh food for my daily consumption from a garden that I am learning to cultivate….

Today, Maria was generous enough to patiently teach me step-by-step how to make sweet cassava pudding using fresh cassava tubers from our organic garden at Cotton Tree Lodge.

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First I accompanied Mr. Marcos, our gardener, outdoors to harvest cassava from a shrubby tree that is native to tropical America and cultivated throughout the tropics [for you ethnobotany geeks: Genus Manihot, family Euphorbiaceae].

After Marcos and I filled a bucket with a bunch of fresh cassava tubers, we delivered it to Maria, who thanked us and immediately set to work scrubbing the soil off of the long and tapered roots. She chose three of the largest ones for today’s pudding.

Cassava root has a white flesh on the inside, encased in a detachable rind that is rough and brown on the outside. Maria showed me how to take a knife and score the outside rind and peel it off to reveal the starchy, firm, white interior.

Then, we grated the caimg_0815ssava into a large mixing bowl. (This is hard work! I started sweating!)

Next, toss the grated cassava into a blender until smooth.

Mix ingredients into a large bowl:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 sticks melted butter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup Carnation cream
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Optional: grated ginger root

cassava-puddingGrease baking pan (14″x10″)

Bake in oven at 250 degrees for 45 minutes

(Serves 12 people)

Cassava pudding is sweet with a gooey, gelatinous texture… When you are in Belize, enjoy our farm to table goodness…

Nourishment that’s been here for generations. Thanks, Maria!

 

 

 

 

 

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