Guatemala: Volcano-toasted marshmallows and handmade chocolates

TUESDAY
The guidebook says Antigua is ‘Guatemala’s tourism showpiece…a place of rare beauty, major historical significance and vibrant culture’. I think I’d agree. We don’t usually particularly enjoy cities but it really is a lovely place. Its cobble stone streets are largely one way reducing traffic, its central square is pretty and inviting, its buildings are colourful and terracotta roofed.

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There are plenty of nice restaurants, lots of intact and ruined churches, and flower and fountain filled terraces hide behind many unlikely street entrances. This used to be the cathedral:

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To top it all, every other street offers a view of one of the three volcanoes that surround the town! Can you guess where this is?!

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This Arco de Santa Catalina is an iconic view, though it would be much improved without the parked cars and on a clear day you can see a volcano in the distance.

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There were loads of women and girls wearing their colourful traditional dress which I really like.

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Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a very big deal in Antigua and, as it begins in just a few days, preparations are underway. Purple and white banners and dried flower arrangements adorn buildings; intricate patterns made from coloured sand, fruits and flowers are laid out on church floors; a series of large statues telling the Easter story on floats are organised ready for a procession; and people everywhere are walking around with wrapped flowers. Not an Easter egg or bunny in sight!

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During our wanderings we’d spotted a leaflet offering free salsa lessons so at 5pm we made our way to the little studio and met the flamboyant Gloria. The lesson actually covered a lot of moves which I’m not sure we’d have kept up with if we hadn’t done them before. It’s well over 4 years since either of us has though and it was amazing how much I’d forgotten. Fortunately it came back to me fairly quickly during the extremely hot hour and I really enjoyed it despite very painful feet at the end from dancing shoeless!

WEDNESDAY
At around 6:30am we were collected by a minivan and rode the hour and a half or so to the foot of Volcan Pacaya. I’ve always wanted to climb a volcano and peer inside. Today wasn’t to be the day for that though because Pacaya is a fairly active volcano which last erupted on March 2nd and as such it would be far too dangerous to approach its summit. Being the first time I’ve seen a volcano, it was still pretty exciting!

Instead we embarked, at quite a pace, upon a 4km steep trek up the lower part of the volcano. I was pleased I’d decided to pay 5 Quetzales to hire a stick as the ground was very uneven. We were followed by horses and their optimistic owners who called out ‘taxi now miss?’ every time I hesitated to catch my breath! The view of the other volcanoes as we hiked was stunning: right to left are Agua, Acatenango and the almost continuously smoking Fuego (fire).

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There was also an El Salvadorean geothermal power plant.

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Eventually we emerged from the trees to a very windy viewpoint towards the volcano’s main peak. [It was here that a woman in another tour group fell over and broke her ankle! Some very resourceful people made wooden splints for her and she returned to the bottom on a horse.] From here we could see the white gas (not sure what exactly) rising from the crater – and various other areas down the slope – and being swept away by the wind.

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Down the side of Pacaya there was a clear contrast between the destruction caused by the recent lava flow and the trees left untouched.

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We descended some treacherous scree to the edge of the lava field and followed a snake of people across the uneven, warm basalt. I thought the wind would steal my stick!

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Reaching an unscorched path, we passed smoking tree stumps and crossed into another ‘field’ for my favourite part of the excursion. Our guide had cut long sticks for us all and skewered marshmallows onto them! We found crevices in the rocks, thrust in the sticks and waited. Removing them after about a minute, they had developed a crispy coating and had melted deliciously in the centre. Just as they should. A sweet reward for our trekking efforts!

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Whilst busy with my marshmallows, I failed to notice the soles of my shoes melting! Fortunately there’s still some tread left; they’ve got to last me three months more!

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The return walk was much less arduous and far quicker!

THURSDAY
Thursday was market day. We arrived around 9:30 and it was in full swing. The vast nucleus of stalls were in a covered area, a never-ending warren of irregular pathways in which it was very easy to get utterly lost. In several areas, routes became human traffic jams with shoppers, vendors, a few tourists and men with improbably large loads tied to their backs. We got stuck – for quite some time – uncomfortably close to several mountains of stinking dried fish!

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Some goods were spread out over counters or in tiny booths: racks of meat hanging over mountains of offal, stacks of kitchenware, piles of colourful flowers being arranged into Semana Santa wreaths, enormous towers of trays of eggs, sacks of beans, pulses, grains, spices and dogfood.

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Many others vendors, particularly those selling fruit and vegetables were set out on the floor or slightly raised platforms with their rainbow pyramids of wares – blackberries, melons, mangoes, peppers, pineapples, papayas,  strawberries, radishes and whole host of things I don’t know the names of.

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What made it different to most other markets we’ve visited was that, in addition to the stationery sellers, there were also loads of people walking around promoting their goods too. Women and young girls carried huge baskets of tomatoes or spring onions on their heads, boys had trays of CDs or toothpastes hung around their necks, men carried full size manekin legs modelling their particular brand of trousers on offer. On the move or not, almost everyone was repetitively but unobtrusively calling out their products and prices creating a calm hubbub.

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Beyond this tightly interwoven section, yet more stalls spilled out into the surrounding land, covering carparks, the owners using parasols to protect themselves from the blazing sun. This is where we stumbled across the ‘chicken bus’ depot. I accidentally forgot to change my settings from the indoor market for this photo but I quite like the effect!

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They’re Guatemala’s local transport and are quite spectacularly converted school buses. Given colourful paint jobs and a name, we saw them lined up in neat rows, some being polished, some being loaded up for the next journey.

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We signed up for the Choco Museo’s chocolate making workshop in the afternoon thanks to Dean’s sister, Cally 🙂 First we learnt some history from our very enthusiastic, passionate chocolate teacher, Pablo. Here he is:

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As sound effects, actions and jokes aren’t really possible here, I’ll summarise it for you in a more straight forward manner.

☆ The Mayas (250 – 900 AD) discovered that cacao seeds were tasty when ground and turned into a bitter, frothy drink.
☆ Although their land was unsuitable to growing cacao, the Aztecs (1200 – 1581 AD) turned it into a currency by trade and taxes from the Mayans. 100 beans bought a forest rabbit, 3 bought a turkey egg or an avocado. The chocolate drink became an exclusively upper class privilege. It was considered food of the gods and offerings were made to Quetzalcoatl.
☆ In 1521, Spaniard Hernando Cortes defeated Aztec emperor, Montezuma, and forced the Aztecs to hand over their treasures including cacao beans.
☆ In 1585, the first shipment of cacao arrived in Seville. Subsequently, to meet growing demand for this and other treasures, slavery was introduced.
☆ The Spanish continued with the ancient methods of production but introduced a wooden stirring stick, a molinillo, for ease of frothing the chocolate. They also began drinking the mixture hot and added cane sugar to counteract the bitter taste.
☆ In the early 17th century, chocolate was introduced as a medicine in other European countries but soon became a trendy beverage for the nobility.
☆ The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657, a place only for the wealthy.
☆ In the 18th and 19th centuries, machines sped up and improved production, creating smoother, creamier chocolate. It was only then that solid chocolate was invented.
☆ Henri Nestlé created milk chocolate in 1875.
☆ William Cadbury united several English and American chocolate makers to end slavery by refusing to purchase raw products from cacao plantations with harsh working conditions.
☆ Chocolate finally became available to the masses, began being used in baking, and a culture of chocolate craving was inspired by advertisers.

So there you have it. During our workshop we first roasted the beans to enable us to remove the nibs from the husks.

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Then we ground the nibs to a smooth paste with a mortar and pestle. (We had to race: Dean won!) Pablo demonstrated how the Mayans did it on a bigger scale, and showed us a more modern grinding machine.

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He turned the husks into cacao tea by mixing them with sugar. Then we tried the Mayan chocolate drink using the paste, water, honey, chilli powder, cinnamon (I think) and a red dye (the Mayans used blood!). To mix it – and create froth to make you live longer – it had to be poured back and forth between two vessels from great heights.

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Thirdly we tried a Spanish version which was hot with milk, cardamom, aniseed, sugar and black pepper, mixed with a molinillo. The first one tasted ok but I can’t say I enjoyed the others!

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To my dismay I learnt that most of the chocolate I enjoy, and all white chocolate, is barely chocolate at all! It’s mostly sugar, cacao powder and a kind of soya oil that replaces the cacao butter. Only dark chocolate and posh milk chocolate has a decent amount of cacao liquor to make it ‘proper’ chocolate!

Anyway, back to making chocolate. The ground cacao bean paste is refined to cacao liquor and combined with sugar (plus milk powder for milk chocolate) and is mixed in a conching machine for lots of hours (22 for 10lbs). We had a bowl each of ready-mixed chocolate and, after choosing our moulds, set about creating our masterpieces.

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Or rather Dean did. He created beautiful, uniform, neat dark chocolates using a range of interesting ingredients including macadamia nuts, coffee beans, chilli, raisins, coconut, almonds and sea salt. I just made a mess. Knowing I was the one who would be eating them, I stuck to just flavours I would like which amounted to raisins and sprinkles!

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Fun and tasty nevertheless! Here are the finished items.

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Friday was a bus day and now it’s Saturday morning. Late last night we arrived in Honduras and are looking forward to exploring Copan and experiencing the start of Semana Santa. On with the day!

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