After an extensive drive along hilly, curving roads in the Puuc Hills of Yucatan, we arrived at Plantacion Tikul, the cacao farm owned by master chocolatier Mathieu Brees. Mathieu is a Belgian who, with his wife Stephanie Verbrugge, moved to Merida eight years ago to start their own chocolate-making business. They have three Ki Xocolatl retail stores in Merida and have started to ship their products to exclusive stores in the USA.
For years, they’ve been buying their raw chocolate from organic growers in Tabasco and Chiapas Mexico, but recently, they decided to start growing their own.
Mathieu’s good friend and business partner in Belgium, Eddy Van Belle, has invested in the plantation and his collection of chocolate-related artifacts will be displayed in the museum, coming soon. Mathieu’s other investor is Belcolade, a Belgian chocolate maker. These three chocolate-obsessed entities have lovingly put together a perfect situation for growing the world’s best cacao.
Plantacion Tikul is over 750 acres of rich soil and lush vegetation. There are about 40 workmen clearing land and planting cacao and shade plants. They’re also building a visitors’ center, Maya-style education buildings, and working on the sophisticated irrigation system. It’s a scene of busy activity.
The ancient unrestored Maya city of Sabacche is located on the plantation. These ruins are about the same age as the first cultivated chocolate, somewhere between 250 and 900 A.D. We can imagine that the Maya might have first figured out how to mix ground cacao beans, cacao oil, and flavorings right here at Plantacion Tikul/Sabacche. (Sugar was introduced to chocolate by the Spanish, centuries later.)
When you enter the property, something strikes you as odd. You gradually realize that although you are looking at a large, busy construction site, it is quiet and peaceful. There are no machines. Just the sounds of low voices and of birds and the occasional whack of a hammer.
That’s because INAH, the Mexican government agency that oversees ruins and museums, in an effort to preserve the ancient structures here, has forbidden the use of machines for this project. So the workers are back to the implements they’ve used for thousands of years – the machete, rough hammers, and other hand tools.
Welcome visitors – soon
Plantacion Tikul promises to be a stunning visitor attraction. It’s a gorgeous and unique park with lovely walkways. There’s going to be a delicious cafe, a children’s play area, the intrigue of an unrestored Maya ruin, friendly animals, and a high-quality educational experience. And best of all, there’s Ki Xocolatl chocolate!
A large, traditional building is the first thing you see. It’s the visitor reception center. When we were visited the other day, (10/20/2010), men were cementing the floor and finishing a palapa roof over the back.
The other sensation that hits you when you enter the property is that it smells so good. It’s a combination of wood fires and fragrant plants, completely unsullied by machine oil or gas.
As you walk down the path through this beautiful place, you encounter a series of huts, all constructed in Maya style, and each presenting a different kind of information on the history, curative powers, and manufacturing of chocolate.
See the hut in the distance.
- Education hut (one of five)
- The huts are traditional Maya buildings. The walls are mud mixed with a special kind of grass and the roof is palm palapa.
Growing Cacao (Theobroma cacao – variety criollo)
The goal of Plantacion Tikul is to produce the highest grade, most flavorful cacao beans to be found anywhere. This is, of course, so Mathieu’s company, Ki Xocolatl, can produce the very finest chocolate available anywhere. He and his crew go to great lengths to accomplish this.
There are well-organized plantings everywhere, even on the Maya mounds. Cedro (cedar), yuca (cassava), mamey and banana for shade, and the cacao plants carefully protected underneath them. In the flat fields, there is a cedro every 36 meters, and every 12 meters a yuca.
This is a picture of yuca starts. All the workers need to do is push them into the ground, and they begin to generate leaves and grow. They are efficient, fast-growing shade plants.
Bananas are all around, in gently defined lines. Mathieu says that when the cedars grow to their full heights in a couple of years, the bananas, yuca and other temporary, fast-growing shade trees will be removed.
Six varieties of cacao are grown at Tikul. The plants haven’t been grown commercially in Yucatan before this, because most of the area is inhospitable to them. They need just the right combination of good soil, shade, altitude and temperature to thrive, and the Puuc hills provide a good environment.
During the clearing process, the workers have found over 200 orchid plants. They’ve all been moved to visible locations along the paths.
The plantation also grows plants for flavoring chocolate – allspice, vanilla, cinnamon, and peppers.
When his plants mature, Mathieu will be the only chocolatier in the world who controls his product from start to finish. The plants and beans, the flavorings, and the mixing and manufacturing – all will be done in Merida and on the plantation.
Mario Burgos, aka “Concho,” is the plantation foreman. He’s delighted with this project and even while chatting, he is examining leaves for infestation, or checking the moisture level of the soil. Here’s a picture of him next to his “favorite plant,” a one-year-old cacao.
The crew is constantly experimenting to produce the sturdiest, most flavorful plant products. Cacao plants are routinely grafted* here. For example, they will take a plant that is hardy but not particularly high quality in flavor, and graft branches of the tastiest cacao to it. They try various combinations, all carefully labelled and recorded, and this will probably be a continuous process. Many of the original cacao plants are from Mathieu’s current providers in Tabasco, but need tweaking for the special environment of Yucatan.
Only some sections of the plantation have been cultivated and planted. Other parts are being cleared.
The workers are working hard to clear all seven fields. Fields are delineated by large white irrigation PVC.
This is the administration building and will contain offices.
This place is ecologically solid. The solar panels below provide the power for the security hut.
The irrigation system is a marvel. A 150 hp pump pulls water from the 110-meter-deep well and routes it through a PVC pipe system all over the plantation. The pipes graduate to smaller and smaller diameters all the way down to individual spray mechanisms, individually controlled, which are less than half-inch-thick rubber tubing with spigots.
The farm has a great deal of trouble with ant and insect infestation. They use organic materials to keep the beasts at bay. Ingredients include neem oil, citrus, onions and cinnamon. Cedar trees have an onion scent, which helps repel insects.
- Organic insecticide
This little-documented Maya city, different from the one of a similar name located near Tecoh, has dozens of buildings and several plazas. The smaller, probably residential mounds, have been cleared and are visible, but the major structures are hidden in the jungle.
Here we see a hole in the ground with a paved lip. I say it’s a chultun; Mathieu says its an aktun. I say chultuns held water and he says they held provisions. We bet ten pesos but don’t have enough information to settle the debt.**
A sacbe (Maya road) extends from Sabacche to Xlapac.
INAH came in and mapped the site thoroughly before granting permission to build the plantation. Mathieu says the workers have found dozens of Maya artifacts all over the property and gathered them together to show in the museum they are planning.
After visiting the Plantacion Tikul, we drove several kilometers to a nearby agricultural property, drove and then walked through several acres of citrus trees, and came to some giant cacao bushes. Concho said one of them was sixty years old!
As we walked, the smell of citrus was dizzying in the hot sun. We picked tangerines from the trees and ate them as we walked.
This is the tattoo on Mathieu’s arm. The Maya glyphs say, “This man prepared chocolate for the gods.”
Mathieu says that cacao was first cultivated in Yucatan and was used as highly valued trade tender. It is only appropriate that cacao should experience this revitalization here, at the site of its origins.
This visit was in October 2010. At this point, Mathieu and his team have been working on the Plantacion Tikul for about a year. We expect the place will look dramatically different in a few months. Plants will have matured, buildings will be finished, and the smells will be even more heavenly.
*Grafting can only be done at certain times of the month. For instance, at the full moon, the sap is up in the trees and grafts do not take, according to Mathieu and Concho. .
**From Mathieu: Diferencia entre AKTUN y CHULTUN:
AKTUN: Aljibe natural o gruta para recolectar agua de lluvias.
CHULTUN: Aljibe hecho por el hombre al fin de almacenar alimentos o agua en las zonas con pocas precipitaciones.
Mathieu says that these are accurate definitions, sourced from a Maya dictionary.
In a future article, we will observe the master chocolatier at his craft. We’ll watch Mathieu’s entire process as he grinds and presses the cacao beans, separates the oils, does his mixes, adds flavorings and produces Ki Xocolatl chocolate.
Ki Xocolatl has a coffee and chocolate shop in downtown Merida on Calle 55, near the Sta. Lucia square. They also have several lovely retail outlets and are about to distribute their chocolate bars in the USA.