Arcelia Gallardo: To the Edge of the World With Chocolate

arcelia-chocolate-articleEditors Note: LAM Network member Arcelia Gallardo — owner of Latina Desserts — recently visited Central America to spread her knowledge of cacao and chocolate. LAM Editorial Intern Gaby Arvizu helped document her journey.

About eight hours north of Guatemala City there is a village in the Alta Verapaz region named Salacuim. You can’t find it on a map. The women wear traditional Maya skirts, loose colorful blouses, speak little Spanish — mostly Q’eqchi’ — and drink cacao every day. I found this village through a lineage of chocolate contacts and am spending a week teaching Maya women to make chocolate.

The idea seems absurd considering that the Maya have a few thousand years of history in cacao production and consumption. Although the Maya are not new to cacao, they are new to chocolate. Chocolate as we know it is about 200 years old and it is rare to find a cacao grower who has tasted chocolate or understands the process of making chocolate.

The main woman, Mercedes, a 40-something year old with a third grade education, mother of four and busy home keeper, is chosen as my translator. Like most homes in this village, the main room is an open kitchen with a clay stove, dirt floor and thatched roof. Three times a day she hand makes tortillas, prepares meals for her family and boils corn to have the masa ready for the next day. She hand washes all the clothes, feeds the turkeys and chickens, harvests what is ripe from her garden, goes to the well for water and three times a day prepares some type of cacao drink. She explains that the frothing of the cacao drink is important. The ancestors believed that the oxygen that gets trapped in the bubbles has the power to rejuvenate you.

Since it took me four hours to arrive to Salacuim from the nearest “big” town, I knew that all ingredients for this chocolate had to be accessible from their own backyards. I looked around their gardens and found peanuts, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, coconut, oranges, mint and vanilla. What a paradise. I taught them how to roast, crack, grind and mix. After four hours of work we end up with a very rustic, strong, bitter chocolate.  We sat around the table to taste our creations and they talked for hours in Q’eqchi while pointing and tasting. From the little I understood they were talking about their favorite — cardamom. They also were talking price points and packaging.

They were eager to move forward with their new products. They asked me if I would return in a year to see their progress and to teach them new things. I get flashes of the multiple hot bus rides it took to get here, the spiders and roaches I see nightly running across my bed, the unpleasant outhouses and the horse fly and mosquito attacks. I answered, “Of course, I would love to see your progress and teach you other things. I will return within a year.”