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A 14-day chocolate adventure leads to cooking school in Mérida, Mexico

"Who doesn't love chocolate?" That's why chef David Sterling said he added the Chocolate Indulgence class to his Los Dos cooking school roster.

It was the highlight of my husband's birthday gift to me: a 14-day chocolate adventure through the Yucatán.

Our Indulgence started when we checked into the elegant Villa Verde in Mérida, where Sterling had left us a box of seriously delicious chocolates.

By 9 the next morning we were dunking Sterling's just-fried churros (imagine the best doughnut and triple it) into a thick concoction of Mexican cacao, sugar, chiles, allspice and milk as we sat poolside by his home/school. (Think renovated Spanish colonial meets Architectural Digest.)

After breakfast, we peeled toasted cacao beans, then put them in a food processor.

"It looks like hot fudge when it's done. There it goes. It's dancing now," Sterling said as the ground-up cacao turned to a gooey clay.

We then rolled the paste into balls called chocolate de mesa and dusted them in cocoa powder for later use in drinks and moles.

After cooking, our first stop was Uxmal, the massive Maya ruins 50 miles south of Mérida.

Sterling had a story for every part of the ruin. Atop the steps of the central pyramid, he said, Maya priests drank hot cocoa mixed with the blood of the ritual ballgame victors, then rolled the bodies down the steps.

At the nearby Choco-Story Chocolate Museum, we toured six thatched exhibition huts chock-full of chocolate lore, then sampled the Maya version of hot chocolate.

The educational highlight of the day was our tour of Tikul, the 750-acre cacao plantation. The goal of this partnership between chocolatier Mathieu Brees and Belgian chocolate company Belcolade is to reintroduce the production of high-quality chocolate to the Yucatán with its 50,000 cacao trees.

As Sterling translated, plantation foreman Mario Burgos guided us through the cacao process. We saw new buds being grafted and men chopping open ripe cacao pods to harvest the beans that went into fermentation boxes and onto drying racks.

The big surprise was the delicious citrusy/melon pulp surrounding the beans.

We ate an early dinner at Hacienda Temozón, one of the Yucatán's many renovated 17th century sisal plantations. Over plates of frijoles y puerco we got a graduate-level lesson in Yucatán culture and food as well as Sterling's autobiography.

"At age 13, I became obsessed with Mexico. It was everything Oklahoma City wasn't," Sterling said, mentioning his hometown. "I was smitten; it felt like home."

It was a long Chocolate Indulgence day, but back in Mérida we still made a late-night run to Ki'Xocolatl, the Tikul shop where Sterling had bought our introductory chocolates.

My husband clinked his chocolate truffle against mine and said, "Happy birthday, my little cacao bean."

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula for chocolate lovers

The history of chocolate begins in the Yucatán Peninsula, where tropical sun, Maya ruins and beaches join for a sweet time.

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