Vintage winemaking in Belize: turning chocolate beans into wine

Did you know that the beans used to make chocolate can also be used to make a delicious wine? At Cotton Tree Lodge in Belize, Central America, we are turning cacao beans into wine every day!

Cotton Tree Lodge is an eco-lodge nestled deep in the tropical jungle of southern Belize beside the flowing Moho River, where guests can experience a unique adventure with sustainable tourism to local Mayan ruins, waterfalls, underwater caves, as well as a variety of cultural activities. Not only is Cotton Tree Lodge a destination for tourists seeking a peaceful getaway surrounded by pristine nature — it is also the site for some of the world’s most unique, locally sourced products; namely, Cotton Tree chocolate bars and a new product currently in development: cacao wine.

Cotton Tree Lodge’s sprawling hundred-acre property has dozens of mature cacao trees from which we get the beans for making our award-winning Cotton Tree chocolate.

Our experienced farmers harvest ripe pods and break them open to reveal a hidden jewel: white beans surrounded by a juicy white flesh. Historically, the ancient Maya once used these cacao beans as a currency, and today, farmers still strive to sell the best quality cacao beans for the most competitive price on the market.

The cacao beans are extracted and placed into burlap bags, delivered to our processing facility, where we collect the fruity-tasting juice. It is from this deliciously sweet, fruity juice that cacao wine is then made through a fermentation process that our resident food scientist intern, Hali, a recent graduate from Pennsylvania State University, is currently researching and developing at our processing facility at Cotton Tree Lodge.

After earning her Bachelor of Science in Food Science with a minor in International Agriculture, Hali knew she wanted to gain some valuable work experience that would set her apart from others. “I didn’t want to go get just any run-of-the-mill internship like everybody else was doing,” she related in a recent interview inside the thatched roof facility where she has been perfecting the fermentation process daily through trial and error–and a lot of patience, persistence and research.

Hali had traveled to Belize in 2014, where she bought a Cotton Tree chocolate bar in the airport. “I had to spend the rest of my Belizean dollars,” she said, “and I remember how good the chocolate was. So when I graduated, I emailed the owner and asked if he needed an intern in food science.”

It just so happened that Hali’s bold, back-door approach gained her entry into the world of bean-to-bar chocolate making in what some call the “chocolate center of the universe” — the southernmost district of Belize, Central America, where the rainfall and soil content are ideal for cultivating cacao saplings into mature, fruit-bearing trees within 3 to 6 years, depending on the variety.

Once Hali completes her three-month internship researching and developing cacao wine in Belize, she will return home to work as an assistant winemaker in Pennsylvania. “Since I interned at the winery back home,” Hali said, “I was invited to take on this project here in Belize.”

The cacao fruit juice is a by-product of chocolate making that–were it not for the creativity, resourcefulness and commitment to zero waste at Cotton Tree Lodge’s farm-to-table restaurant and resort–the cacao juice would simply drain off and go unused.

Hali works alongside a local Belizean farmer who is responsible for fermenting and drying the cacao beans, which will then be used to make Cotton Tree chocolate.

“Fermenting cacao juice into wine is like making any other fruit wine,” said Hali, who can be found avidly researching online whenever she is not busy testing out her process inside the facility. “You have to make sure the sugar is at a high enough level so you have enough alcohol for it to be classified as wine.”

Hali, with the help of her skilled assistant, a local Belizean farmer, is able to turn the cacao juice into wine through a fermentation process that takes about 4 to 6 days, depending on the ambient temperature, which is typically 85 degrees Fahrenheit or more on most days of the year. “It’s been cold here lately,” said Hali, “so some of our recent batches have been taking longer to ferment.”

The winemaking process represents Cotton Tree Chocolate company’s dedication to wise, sustainable use of local resources, because the cacao juice that is used to make the wine would otherwise go to waste.

“Normally, when farmers sell cacao, they harvest it the day before it is sold, put it into a burlap bag, and all the juice drains out,” food scientist Hali explained. “Whoever buys cacao isn’t buying the juice. They’re just buying wet cacao beans and whatever pulp is still around them.

“What we’re doing is buying wet cacao, putting wet beans into a perforated bucket and collecting the juice.”

After a month of trial and error, the process has become more productive and successful. Each week, the facility receives 30 buckets of wet cacao beans. Out of that, Hali is now able to produce about 6 buckets of cacao wine.

“By the time we get the beans here, the juice is already draining off,” Hali said, “so we get what we’re calling the first day juice. We let them sit overnight. It’s better, when you’re fermenting beans for chocolate, to have them kind of dry. You don’t want all that moisture. So we’ve been collecting the second day juice too.”

While the process is still in the research and development phase, the most recent guests at Cotton Tree Lodge who have been fortunate to taste test the first few batches of cacao wine gave it a thumbs up with helpful suggestions for improvement. Hali commented, “In the future, we hope to try and add something to sweeten the wine so it’s not quite so dry.”

“The cacao juice itself tastes sweet and slightly floral,” Hali said while the small, stingless Mayan bees hovered nearby, pollinating the nearby cacao trees and making honey. “The wine kind of carries that flavor over. Normally you want to let a white wine age 6 months to balance everything out. Right now, a lot of our batches taste acidic because the flavors haven’t had enough time to mingle. We are still trying to iron out some details about how we are going about filtering and letting things settle out.”

Good-tasting cacao wine will be a new, unique product for Belize. Some other cacao wines on the market taste too much like vinegar, according to the latest market research. “I hope that with a set process and standards of cleanliness and sanitation, we will produce a good fruit wine. It will be the first of its kind in Belize,” said Hali.

When you come stay with us at Cotton Tree Lodge, be sure to order a glass of our cacao wine from our friendly bartenders, and be on the lookout for our delicious, bottled cacao wine on the local market!

Click here to book your stay at Cotton Tree Lodge and try our new cacao wine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Discovering a nest of baby mice in my yoga mat

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When you visit southern Belize for vacation, or in my case, when you come here to live and thrive, you join the lives of jungle animals and plants in this lush, vibrant habitat — where biodiversity can be seen, felt and heard every day by anyone lucky enough to come in contact with it. Close encounters with species that make this jungle paradise their home are common experiences for guests and residents of the Toledo district of southern Belize.

Five years ago I left my career in the U.S. to move to Central America and purchase an acre of land in tropical Belize (a tiny country just south of Mexico with coastline along the Caribbean Sea), where I’ve launched myself into the adventure of a lifetime building my own off grid home with the company and help of my neighbors and friends, many of whom are also ex-pats like me who share the common dream of living unconventionally and sustainably in a place where we can grow our own food year-round amidst fertile soils and a pleasant, laid back culture of beautifully diverse animals, including the people.

house-from-inside-copyWhether it’s a blue morpho butterfly fluttering from tree to tree, a turtle slowly making its way across your path, or a fuzzy tarantula lumbering across the walkway, I am thrilled and fascinated every day to see and interact with teeming jungle life. I think the local Mayan villagers, who are my friends and neighbors, agree that Belize is unique for its pristine, intact natural resources.

We lucky residents of Belize are accustomed to finding enormous spiders, rodents of unusual size and frighteningly large insects taking up residence in our thatch roof homes made of wood from trees harvested locally and sustainably. Forget about hermetically sealing your home in layers of toxic paint, sheetrock and wallpaper: Here in the tropics, the houses are made of natural materials that can breathe, which means here we let the air in and by default, the animals and insects often find their way inside and share space with us. I can personally attest to this common, everyday occurrence, as I am currently in the process of building a 16 X 16 foot thatch roof hut in the middle of second-growth rainforest on the edge of a mangrove creek.

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Yesterday morning I awoke to find a gargantuan spider inches from my face. The day before, I absentmindedly pulled on my leather cowgirl boots without first shaking them out, only to discover that a spider of similarly gigantic proportions had found a comfortable haven in the dark coolness of my boot, and luckily I spared her life by feeling her wriggling against my foot, swiftly removing the boot and sending her on her hopefully merry way.

Back to the spider in my bed… Since I’ve lived here for five years now, I was unfazed. (I’ve had stranger bedfellows, namely a scorpion inches from my nose)…. I greeted my eight-legged arachnid brethren with a hearty “Good morning!” and calmly proceeded to corral him into a jar, which I then sealed and carried outside, where I promptly freed this exquisite creature to continue living. Why should I kill a spider? He eats insects that could bite me. I am thankful for the intricate web of life that naturally stays in perfect balance (well… if it weren’t for the cumulative detrimental impact of humans on the natural world, but that’s another story)….

Parama hugging tree at Palenque copyAs the Manager of the Spa and Wellness Center at Cotton Tree Lodge, an eco-lodge located deep in the jungle of southern Belize, I offer therapeutic massage and unique spa services in a thatch roof spa overlooking an emerald green river as well as daily morning sunrise yoga in a charming riverside gazebo decorated with the large carved wooden faces of the Mayan ancestors, in honor of Belize’s history as an empire of the Maya heartland. While you’re visiting, you can visit the nearby Mayan temples and ruins, which I highly recommend: Here in Belize, there’s little regulation or restriction on how close you can get to the actual stones and sacred sites. Here, you can immerse yourself in the beauty and wonder of the land, the people, and the thousands of other species that share a home in the rainforest.

img_0907At 6:00 AM this morning, a pleasantly warm and refreshing breeze beckoned me to my yoga mat, and just as I entered my riverside yoga studio, I heard intermittent squeaking noises emerging from … somewhere. I searched the room and discovered that the sound was coming from a wicker basket that holds my yoga mats. When I opened the cover of the basket, out popped a rather large and frightened gray mouse with round, black beady eyes and a look of terror. She leapt out from the basket, pounced to the floor and ran away faster than my eye could see, disappearing from sight.

img_0906I can imagine how reluctant Momma Mouse was at that moment to have abandoned her brood in order to save her own life: I peered into the basket to discover the family she’d left behind. There were three newborn baby mice nestled in a mound of shredded material–some of which consisted of yoga mat bits–at the bottom of the basket. Upon closer inspection, I surmised that Momma Mouse must have spent hours diligently nibbling away at not only my yoga mats, but also the basket itself, to construct a plush and comfortable nest for her babies.

I could have let myself fall into a state of upset at the inconvenient loss of a precious yoga mat, not to mention the urgent clean-up job left to my hands, but that would not have been very yogic-like, nor could I blame Momma Mouse. I would have done the same thing if given the opportunity. I had been out of town and away from my yoga studio for four days, giving her a perfect chance to find an ideal birthing place and nest for her new family in a quiet, undisturbed place. What momma wouldn’t want that?

In anticipation of the imminent arrival of humans wanting to take my yoga class, I quickly set to work on the important task of removing the tiny bodies of three terrified baby mice from my yoga mat basket, all the while wondering where Momma Mouse had run off to, and if she would ever return to retrieve her now very vulnerable babies. I thought about the plethora of predatory snakes and vultures surrounding us, eager to find such tasty morsels for breakfast. I contemplated whether it would be compassionate (and therefore yogic-like) for me to kill them with a fatal blow beneath a heavy object, but I instantly opted to spare their lives, assuming that their mother would run back to them and carry them off to another safe nest as soon as possible. It was my hope and morning yoga intention, anyway, to give three baby rodents a chance to live.

img_0905So, I carried the yoga mat basket outside the yoga studio, tilted it on its side, and carefully reached in to extract the three squealing creatures one by one between my fingers. Their hearts were beating rapidly, their eyes still unopened, a thin layer of gray fuzz just forming over their bodies. I put the nest their mother had made for them on the ground beneath the nearest walkway (out of the sight of hungry birds) and tenderly deposited each one of them in hopes that Momma Mouse would run to their rescue as soon as I was out of the way.

My heart sank when I realized at that moment that there may have been a better way for me to have extracted the babies: Maybe I should not have handled them in my bare fingers. I remembered the time my father found a nest of baby robins that had fallen from our oak tree in a quaint New England suburb, where I was born and raised. He had donned gloves and attempted to return the nest to the tallest branch, informing me that if he touched the nest with his bare hands, the mother bird would reject her babies because of the human scent left behind.

img_0913I wondered if the baby mice would be abandoned by Momma Mouse for the same reason and berated myself for impulsively lifting their tender, fuzzy bodies in my fingers. I could have used a tool or a large leaf … but maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. The jungle can be harsh, life isn’t fair, and babies don’t always get to grow up to become adults. Many obstacles can be found along the way. Most of them fatal.

Being a yoga teacher, I found myself softly chanting a mantra, not only to soothe the baby mice, but to honor and appreciate the precious gift of life, its vulnerability, the opportunity I have to be alive, here, right now…. I breathed deeply and listened to the baby mice squealing, imploring their mother to come for them….

I did my hour-long yoga practice, occasionally stepping outside to see if the babies had been rescued. They squealed softly the entire time, their desperate cries an ambient background noise for my morning yoga and meditation routine, which took on a new dimension in the context of this life-or-death situation: I was steadily reminded that everything is temporary, including my body and my life upon this Earth… that I can be deeply thankful for being alive in this moment, to be breathing, because it can all be taken away at any instant.

img_0910Deep breaths. Deep belly breaths….

As usual, I ended my yoga routine with several minutes of seated, silent meditation. When I opened my eyes, I looked down and noticed a tiny lady-bug-like insect with a polka-dotted exoskeleton sitting at my feet, as if waiting to speak with me.

I spontaneously composed a poem:

 

I was born into this world tender and vulnerable

Every day of my life, yearning for the same things:

to eat, to be clothed, to be soothed, to belong

to be well fed and taken care of

to know someone is there to hold me and keep me safe

to make a soft nest and be close to the warm body of another;

To love.

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***

Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase an acre of fertile land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally.

Check out her latest published books here.

Join Parama on the next wellness retreat (March 11th, 2017) on a white sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea in tropical Belize!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation in Lotus Pose for health and wellness

img_4231I value meditation on a daily basis as a form of contemplative practice to start and end my day. At 4:00 AM I sit in Lotus Pose (Sanskritपद्मासन, or Padmasana) and meditate for at least a half hour, then I fall back asleep until just before sunrise, when I get up to practice a vigorous, dynamic sequence of yoga postures (asanas).

At night, just before falling asleep, I again take Padmasana and meditate until I feel too sleepy to continue, then I lay back and drift off into a typically deep, refreshing sleep for the entire night. For about the past five years, this has been my preferred routine for personal health and wellness.

Padmasana is a cross-legged pose originating in meditative practices of ancient India, in which the feet are placed on the opposing thighs. It is an established asana, commonly used for meditation. The asana is said to resemble a lotus, to encourage breathing proper to associated meditative practice, and to foster physical stability.

img_4064Traditional texts say that Padmasana destroys all disease and awakens kundalini, the vital energy at the base of the spine.

Benefits of Padmasana:

  • Calms the brain
  • Stimulates the pelvis, spine, abdomen, and bladder
  • Stretches the ankles and knees
  • Eases menstrual discomfort and sciatica
  • Consistent practice of this pose throughout pregnancy is said to help ease childbirth

Important note about Padmasana:

Padmasana pose is the ideal sitting asana for meditation, but it’s not for everybody. Experienced students can use it as a seat for their daily pranayama or meditation, but beginners may need to use other suitable positions. In the beginning, only hold the pose for a few seconds and quickly release. Gradually add a few seconds each week to your pose until you can sit comfortably for a minute or so. Ideally you should work with a teacher to monitor your progress.

Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally. Check out her latest published books here.

Why I moved to Belize, Central America

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When I left my thatch roof bungalow early this morning for my daily workout, I noticed an enormous snail that had suctioned itself to my front door, lazily plugging along, its delicate fingerlike antennae searching the warm, moist morning for something, a sign, a vibration on the air….

snail-on-doorI noticed him there all day long, as I welcomed my three clients into the “riverside spa” … (“We have a gorgeous view of the river!”) … (“Hey, wow! This is great!”)

And so I rubbed three people and discovered the magic of whatever that snail must have been searching for, his sensitive membranous skin like the moist surface of my drum when it got wet from the rain after this morning’s yoga class, where I chanted the mantra to Ganesha, the elephant God who removes all obstacles.

“This mantra,” I told my two ladies in class, “is from the ancient tradition of using sound vibration to heal the body and mind and to harmonize the energy around and within us.”

I think the snail could hear me and was swaying his antennae to the rhythm.

At the end of class, I suggested, “Feel your connection to the Earth. Then take a moment to consider your connection to the plants and animals in this jungle. It’s a special place… feel the presence of the river, the trees, the insects, the birds… Breathe.”

As the snail breathed through its thin layer of skin….

jaguar-on-trail“What made you move to Belize?” was the resounding question asked by all three of my clients as they first laid down on my massage table today. I notice myself bracing for the answer, not quite sure how I should — or if I even want to respond. I get the question often enough….

These friendly, “getting to know you” kinds of curiosity-motivated questions have become a daily ritual, albeit slightly annoying (only because I feel obligated to answer, and usually my answer is not so simple. It required a thoughtful response….)

After dodging a few of the more superficial niceties so typical of human interaction, I learned that one of the women I massaged today happens to be a schoolteacher with the very school I recently interviewed for a teaching position that would start in September of 2017.

“It’s nice to have options,” I found myself writing to a friend. “Most women down here don’t even have the choice to work anywhere but at home or doing the dishes at some local restaurant for very little pay….”

(I remind myself to be grateful for what I have, for where I come from, for what I am able to do….)

“You should be thankful that you have fully functioning limbs,” one of my too-smart-for-his-own-good friends told me with severity, after I had lamented to him all the ways I feel so sorry for myself. “You don’t have any problems compared to a lot of the people I know.”

I suppose it’s all relative. The teenager living in the garbage dump.

I asked one of my clients, a middle-aged man from Anchorage, Alaska, about his opinion on climate change. “Are the polar bears wandering into the towns and terrorizing people?”

He had the conservative viewpoint that in the grand scheme of things, we really don’t know what is causing climate change (“Is it just natural cycles or is it manmade? How can we really know?”) … rub, rub … I think he was reeeeally relaxed by the time he made that comment. Like, hell, what do we have to worry about? We’ll all be fiiiiiine. 

I know other scientists and researchers who hold a very different opinion on climate change. Like, we’re all gonna die in 10 years. That kind of urgency.

That’s part of the reason why I decided to move to Belize. Maybe my then-husband and I could have a shot at survival while the shit hits the fan and everyone living in industrialized nations are suffering from heat waves, natural disasters, unprecedented chaos and breakdown of society (especially the economy) … Was it a good idea to move down here?

Parama's houseNot a bad idea, it would seem. Food security, self-sufficiency, tiny house movement … These are all buzz words in the alternative media and the fringe communities of weirdos like me who want to take a shot at living an alternative lifestyle — Hey, why not? Before the shit really hits the fan.

The ceiling fan swirled and circulated the air in my thatch roof bungalow riverside spa while my clients received their massage, until a surprisingly pleasant and refreshing wind blew itself through the room, finding its way without obstacle through the screen windows and against the oily limbs, backs and necks of those three people, tourists from other countries, coming to the tropical jungle of southern Belize for vacation, to explore, to discover… to heal….

Just before bed, I looked outside for the snail. He had released his grip on my front door and was meandering across my Welcome mat. Welcome home.

Click here to see books published by Parama K. Williams

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