Published in Western Living, April 2013
Former Fairburn Farm chef Mara Jernigan has decamped to remotest Belize, where she’s cooking up an eco-tourism and culinary retreat for chocolate, coffee, rum and fly-fishing connoisseurs.
I'm at Willy Wonka’s jungle lair: a spice farm in the lush Belize rainforest, under a shady colonnade of pepper trees, with Mara Jernigan. “I’ve been a chef for 30 years and I’d never seen what some of these things look like, where they come from,” marvels Jernigan, one of a handful of foodies who brought the Slow Food movement to Canada and, as longtime chef at Fairburn Farm in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley, a pioneer of agritourism-chic.
Jernigan’s new digs is the luxe fishing cum eco resort Belcampo Belize, where the well-heeled retreat to fish, eat and generally get away from it all. The resort is just one link in the Belcampo food chain, which includes sustainable farm/butcher shop operations in Marin County, CA and in Uruguay, headed by CEO and Iron Chef judge Anya Fernald. Jernigan came to Belize as chef, but was soon elevated to general manager.
The chef darts through her very own candy store, plucking allspice leaves (“for baking fish”) and picking up cinnamon cuttings (“we use them when we smoke our bacon”). We spot plants—vanilla vines, trees of nutmeg and tamarind, groves of orange and papaya—bearing things I’ve only seen in grocery stores.
This is also, literally, a chocolate factory. Our guide holds a lumpy, dark-yellow pod that looks like a small squash; one soft crack against a palm trunk splits it, revealing giant, white corn-type kernels. They’re covered in pulp that feels slimy but tastes delicious, like mango. Inside is the dark, purply-brown cacao nib: moist, grainy, bitter. This is what gets turned into the darkest, richest chocolate.
“In three to five years, we’ll have our own,” says Jernigan, who as GM is creating a local-food Eden. More than 20,000 rare, wild criollo variety cacao trees have been planted on 60 acres of Belcampo land, making it the largest cacao plantation in Belize. The farm has grown to include organic herb and produce gardens; rum, coffee and cacao production; pigs and chickens raised on site; and plenty of opportunities for guest and visitor interaction with authentic, sustainable food production.
In a country the size of Massachusetts with a population of just under 300,000, the Toledo district (which spans the verdant foothills of the Maya Mountains to the Caribbean Sea) is “the green heart of Belize” Jernigan says. “More than 75 percent of the land in the district is intact jungle. I feel like we’re on the verge of something big here.” Already Belcampo has received a 2012 Global Vision Award from Travel + Leisure for preservation.
As she walks me through the under-construction visitor experience, from a garden of chocolate essences to a century-old sugar-cane press from the former rum distillery on property, I understand what a “visionary” really is: Mara Jernigan sees it. Not just the tools that will bring traditional foods to life, but what sustainable food production and agritourism could mean to the economy and people of this remote region.
Yet, make no mistake, she is every bit the genteel GM, chatting with each table of guests at breakfast, suggesting day excursions to snorkel, fly-fish or hike to incredible caves, waterfalls and Mayan ruins.
Oh, and the breakfast. Next to the desserts (including Mayan chocolate pudding, to die for), it’s my favourite meal of the day. Huevos rancheros with the property’s own eggs, pepper-bright salsa and fresh corn tortillas. Oatmeal tropically topped with toasted coconut. Addictive fry jacks: puffy fried breakfast tortillas perfect for scooping up savoury bean puree or the last of the deep golden yolks.
Dinner mains are clean, fresh, delicious and sustainable: grouper wrapped in allspice leaf; the farm’s own suckling pig; plus okra, plantain, peppers, squash, cabbage, scallions, jicama, beans and herbs from the garden. Most memorable for me was a salad of spicy arugula and shaved heart of palm dressed with a kiss of coconut oil. Earlier that day, I watched farmhand Francisco hack a 40-foot cohune down to a firelog-sized heart of palm in about 20 minutes. That’s local.
One night we dine with Lyra Spang, a food anthropologist who grew up on a farm seven miles from here, and who is completing a PhD on food and tourism in Belize. She describes the nearby town of Punta Gorda as the most ethnically diverse part of the country—it includes several Mayan peoples and the Creoles and Garifuna who trace their roots to Africa. “All the main cultural groups live and survive in the same town, and you don’t see that anywhere else in Belize,” says Spang. Belize even has its first celebrity chef, former pop star Sean Kuylen, who might use anything from local-brewed stout to a confit of gibnut (the meat from a delicious rodent) he stuffs into fresh pasta.
Rodent ravioli is not a bad metaphor for the jungle elegance of Belcampo Belize, where you’ll awaken to the Darth Vader-style rasping of howler monkeys and birdsong battles above the jungle canopy. Other luxury lodges have TVs embedded in the bathroom mirror; here, a crystal-clear floor-to-ceiling window in the shower provides live jungle TV, with surround sound from a huge screened porch in your bedroom. In just a few days on the property I saw a giant (non-poisonous) snake, a small jungle cat called a jaguarundi, a family of rainforest mammals called kinkajous and seemingly most of Belize’s 618 bird species.
We’re not in the Cowichan Valley anymore. “Belcampo is like Fairburn Farm, in the jungle, on steroids,” Jernigan says with a grin. Indeed, the cute “egg mobile” chicken coop under a yellow flowering tree is the tropical cousin of one at Fairburn. Though Jernigan loved her time at Fairburn, she objects to James Barber’s famous declaration that it’s “Canada’s Provence.” “You don’t need olive trees and lemons to be a food destination,” says Jernigan—and she’s gone all the way to the end of the continent to prove it.
WHERE TO STAY IN BELIZE
Private air-conditioned cabins at Belcampo Belize range from $330–$525 per night per couple. Fun feature: a funicular takes you down from the farm and lodge to the last lazy bends of the Rio Grande before it dumps into the Caribbean Sea; lounge on the river deck or explore via kayak or canoe. There’s a small but well-equipped gym riverside, but fitness freaks will hike the 300-plus stairs back to the top. Be sure to book a massage in the spa hut with the mighty Miss Joyce.
If you’d like to experience Belize two ways, try a couple of nights on the beach (Ambergris Caye, infamous as the hideout of rogue software mogul John McAfee) at Victoria House, an upscale boutique resort with two pools, a beachside bar, rooms ($195–$585 a night; casitas and villas are more) with outdoor showers and some fully furnished and kitchen-equipped villas suitable for families or two couples.
Belcampo guides in tricked-out Land Cruisers will take you on day excursions to Blue Hill (a cave with a waterfall deep inside that features water-smoothed curves that look like the inside of the belly of the earth) or make like Indiana Jones and hit theMayan ruins at Lubaantun (where the famed crystal skull was reportedly found). Birdwatching, jungle treks, snorkelling and especially fly-fishing (bonefish and even rare permit fish frequent the waters off Belcampo’s private island) are other popular pursuits.
The Chocolate Festival of Belize happens from May 24 to May 26, with a wine and chocolate pairing event to be hosted at Belcampo Belize.
WHAT TO EAT IN BELIZE
Guests of Belcampo have the option of meal packages that cover some or all meals, but the restaurant is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Top-shelf mixology makes the most of exquisite liqueurs from Casa Mascia (the local company that also makes the divine coconut oil soap in the rooms). On Fridays, have lunch in the organic garden with the farmhands: homemade caldo (spicy chicken soup),
tortillas cooked on a wood-fired comal griddle and a refreshing drink made from ground cacao.
Local restaurant Coleman’s Café has a hot line made up of crockpots full of hearty and delicious curries, stews, rice and fried plantain.
TRAVEL TO BELIZE
Major airlines fly to Belize City; from there it’s a short hop to Punta Gorda on Tropic Air or Maya Island Air. Visit travelbelize.orgfor more information.