“I have this lady and she makes these tarts with the real shortening and shredded coconut.” said Omar Canto, a driver for S & L tours in Belize City. I moved forward in my seat so I could hear him more clearly on the ride to the hotel. Canto had overheard me talking about Belizean food with my colleague and shared, “She makes sure to take off all the husks and adds the fluffy coconut to the dough and condensed milk filling. I also sell jelly rolls.” That was all I needed. My interest was piqued.
‘What do you do? Are you a cook? Do you have a shop?” My salivation-turned-question-firing garnered me a smile and invitation.”Why don’t I bring you some of the sweets I sell and you can try some for yourself.” It was set. I would get my 1st taste of Belizean snack food.
Canto is an snack vendor. A real one – not a machine that slides out heavy preservative laden fruit pies or stale chips. He sells fresh, handmade real food.
Each day, Canto collects pastries and savories made by local cooks, wraps them with a specially designed cellophane, creating a neat, perfect package for a coffee break snack. He has a regular route of businesses in Belize City that he visits during the work-week afternoons.
His specialties include coconut tarts,pumpkin pepitas, jelly rolls, cream cheese and chicken stuffed jalapenos, powderbuns (a cinnamon & brown sugar half-moon) and raisin fudge, all of which hold a special place in the heart of his customers.
Canto makes his own fudge, the recipe for which he learned from is brother. “He showed me how to cook condensed milk down low and slow to make a great caramel. I add raisins regularly or will add what ever the customer asks for.” Its texture is at first dry and crunchy, but then meltingly sweet, punctuated with the chewy grape flavor of the raisins. The caramely milk is the base ingredient found in the the pastry dough and sweet fillings of the line Canto sells.
Condensed milk is a staple in Caribbean pastry recipes, along with tetra-packed dairy products. Equatorial heat and the keeping of fresh milk have long been poor bed partners. The advent of removing water from milk in the late 1800’s to condense it before canning, created a shelf-stable product embraced by Belizean cooks. The results create a flaky crust in the jelly rolls that are filled with homemade jams, and a deeply buttery, lick-you-lips quality to the tarts.
“These are old fashioned recipes and not a lot of people know how to make them anymore. I like to give people a piece of their childhood while they are busy at work.” Canto stated.