Sunday, May 15, 2011

Crooked Tree Village in Belize - The Home of the Cashew Festival and A True Bird Watchers Paradise

Crooked Tree Village - The Home of the Cashew Festival and A True Bird Watchers Paradise
By: Will Moreno - 5/9/2011

The past weekend was, as usual, a hot one with cool winds prevailing in Crooked Tree Village. This weekend the village of Crooked Tree in Belize celebrated its landmark event, the Annual Cashew Festival. This is an annual event that showcases the cashew fruit that grows ever so abundantly in the village and its many many by-products. As expected with such an event, many locals and tourists alike, came out to enjoy the music, food and events celebrating the cashew fruit. Cashew is an unusual fruit that has a fleshy pear shaped body that is  normally yellow in color when fully mature and it has an external seed that is shaped like a kidney bean. Cashew by-products can both be made of the fruit and the seed.

Getting to Crooked Tree Village is quite a scenic drive that is definitely worth making. Crooked Tree Village is not only unique, but also, a beautiful place. It is an oasis with access only by a single causeway. The Village is usually surrounded by water from the Northern and Western Lagoons. At this time of year, the waters in the lagoons are extremely low which exposes the fish, snails and crabs which many species of birds feed on. The village is a well known bird sanctuary, and the wetland is vital to the survival of many species of these local birds. As we drove to Crooked Tree Village, we could not help but notice the bright blue skies with luminous puffy clouds. We stopped along the causeway going into the village to observe nature's wonders and the many species of birds like the Jabiru, Herons, Egrets, Swallows and many others feeding by the causeway. We  quickly realized why this area is a well known bird watchers paradise. Upon entering the village, it was apparent that we had arrived as we were greeted with a sign that said,  "Crooked Tree Village, Home of the Cashew." We could also see many cashew trees laden with fruit gracing the street side and yards.

After passing the Crooked Tree Museum and Gift Shop which is a quaint white wooden building you will realize that you are indeed crossing over into village life where the villagers have that laid back, relaxed and go slow mode. While in Crooked Tree Village, a local showed us the inviting hospitality of the Belizean people. We were casually invited to go to a scenic area on their property. We went to the end of a planked wooden pier with a  palm thatched roof overlooking the great lagoon. Sitting there, taking in the beauty of all the birds, and the cool winds blowing was a sight to behold.

After leaving this property, we drove through the village on dirt roads where we saw some children on horseback and villagers just relaxing in their yards. Upon arriving at the fairgrounds, we could hear the sweet Belizean melodies before we even saw the people who were in attendance. The festivities were in full swing with people enjoying the melodic tunes of a live band. Locals and visitors alike with their favorite beverage in hand  swayed and bopped in time to the music while others danced across the basketball court which was covered with a huge tent.  It was great to see locals, visitors and tourists  enjoying the makeshift booths that were shaded by palm fronds. Belizean entrepreneurial spirit was alive as enterprising merchants showcased their local cashew by-products, handicraft and food. Kids flocked to the games and rides as their parents enjoyed everything made from the sweet tasting cashew fruit and nut.


We took the time to visit each and every booth to see if there was anything we could find that would be rather unusual. Many know of the cashew nut as a snack, but there was also an abundance of cashew wine, cashew sweet, cashew fudge, cashew cake, cashew jam and, yes, there was lots of cashew fruit and freshly roasted nuts.

We were drawn to the booth of  Mr. Charlie who has been making his famous wines or liqueurs for over 45 years. What drew our attention was the many bottles of wines covering the entire table from one end to the other, while he was offering wine tasting sessions. This wine tasting was so different from the many that we had attended in the California wine vineyards or others around the world. Although unconventional, it was certainly 'intoxicating' tasting so many of Mr. Charlie's savory blends. Soon we realized that we were not only getting giggly, but having a blast tasting the different blends of cashew wine, mango wine, cassava wine, golden plum wine, moringa wine, berries wine and tonic wine among others. Needless to say, it made our decision very easy as to which bottles of wine we would soon be purchasing.

 After sampling Mr. Charlie's fine wines, we admired the beautiful handicraft and jewelry which were all locally made. We were stunned to see such beautiful wood turned into great artistic pieces or art and conversation pieces. We were pleased to note that the very affable and knowledgeable young man that attended us was the actual artist of these fine pieces. Ryan told us that he had been doing the carvings and the jewelry himself for many years and has showcased his work at the Altun Ha Maya Ruin for tourists who visit. It was quickly evident why he is so popular and selling many pieces as he had great attention to detail and fine finishes. Ryan is truly a young and talented Belizean entrepreneur who will definitely go a very long way with his artistic pieces.

It is always an adventure to eat at festivals in Belize, and this day was no different offering local village foods. The choices included the local favorite rice and beans with stewed chicken, plantain and potato salad or  deep fried Tilapia. There was also an abundance of bbq, tamales, hot dogs and tacos. Wherever we go we have to try something new, something different and something adventerous. We were introduced to Mrs. Tillett, a local villager who has been preparing the village delicacies for many years, and is known for having some of the best foods cooked over a 'fyah haat' or fire hearth. This is an open wood-fed hearth used to cook meals. We can certainly attest to that after having tried some of her usual rice and beans with stewed chicken, stewed beef and her deep fried fish; however, we wanted to try something more adventurous and she introduced us to a new local delicacy.
This delicacy comes in the name of the Agouti Paca, known locally as the gibnut. The gibnut is a large nocturnal rodent that feeds off the jungle floors eating fallen fruits, leaves and tubers. It is said that on her visit to Belize in October of 1985, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II ate this delicious delicacy. Being totally honest, it did not have the normal gamey taste of game meat, and was wonderfully prepared by Mrs. Tillet. Who would have thought that we would have enjoyed eating a rodent! Mrs. Tillett was very open in telling us that had it been a couple months earlier, we could have tried another local delicacy called the Hicatee, a river turtle who is now on the endangered list in Belize. In trying to protect this endangered animal, the local fish and game authorities have seasonal catching of this turtle and has also designated areas where they are protected.  Sharing a meal cooked over an open fire is truly a way to share great stories of the time gone by with the locals as they told us about when time was time.

 The cashew festival offered many great opportunities for the children with games, horseback rides and lots of space to run freely and enjoy themselves while the parents enjoyed the many booths with cashew by-products and great foods. We will certainly be looking forward to the next opportunity we get to visit Crooked Tree Village again!

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