Caribbean Chocolate: From Bean to Bar.
Words by Natalia Taylor.
Rich and decadent, chocolate has long been one of the world's favourite sweet indulgences. The finest chocolate is strong and dark, bordering on bitter, with complex flavours that whisper of exotic spices, nuts and fruits.
Chocolate’s story began two thousands years ago in the rainforests of Mesoamerica, where the ancient Aztecs and Mayans would harvest the pods of the cacao tree, roasting and grinding the seeds to make a dark, bitter drink they called ‘xocoatl’. Of huge importance to these ancient civilisations who believed it possessed mystical powers, cocoa was used in religious rituals, and the beans were traded as currency. Although not immediately pleasing to the palates of the European explorers arriving in the New World, once they began to mix it with cane they cultivated in the Caribbean, chocolate gained widespread popularity.
Of the three varieties of cacao tree, the forastero, grown largely in Western Africa, accounts for 90 percent of all cocoa produced. This ‘bulk bean’ is a hardy, disease-resistant variety, characterised by a solid, if unexceptional flavour. The criollo trees, on the other hand, produce the more delicate beans that add floral, spicy and aromatic tasting notes to the finest chocolate. Originating in Trinidad, the trinitario, which is now the predominant cacao variety of the Caribbean, combines the strength of the forastero with the flavour intensity of the criollo.
Much like wine, the climate and soil in which cacao is grown, and the way in which the beans are dried and fermented all influence the flavour characteristics of the bean. The rich volcanic soil, heat and humidity of the Caribbean provide ideal conditions for growing cacao trees and producing chocolate that has depth and character.
Although the majority of beans are exported, a few enterprising cocoa farmers in the Caribbean are drawing attention to the region’s historic role in chocolate production by processing, fermenting, drying and roasting their own beans and making artisan chocolates on-site.
On the spice island of Grenada, since Hurricane Ivan destroyed three quarters of the island’s nutmeg plantations in 2004, cocoa has become the number one agricultural export, overtaking the original trade-leader nutmeg. The Grenada Chocolate Company, a cocoa farmers’ and chocolate-makers’ cooperative, prides itself on producing some of the strongest, richest chocolate in the world. Using refurbished antique machinery, modified to run on solar power, they roast the beans, separate the cocoa butter from the solids and make a variety of award-winning, luscious, dark organic chocolates. One of the cooperative’s largest farms, Belmont Estate, attracts a steady stream of visitors keen not only to tour the facilities and witness at first hand the process of making chocolate, but also of course, to taste the difference.
Taking chocolate appreciation to new heights, the Hotel Chocolat in St Lucia invites guests to immerse themselves in a world of chocolate, for days at a time. Located on an ancient cocoa plantation that has been nurtured back to health in recent years, chocolate and cocoa have been subtly woven into every facet of the resort, from chocolate cocktails and cocoa-inspired cuisine to cocoa oil spa treatments. This year, a chocolate factory will be added, so that guests can have a hand in making their very own bite-sized treats.
As consumers increasingly demand the finest quality ingredients, and a return to more traditional production methods and values, the future of Caribbean chocolate looks promising. By producing chocolates with a high proportion of flavour beans, the region could truly lay claim to the finest quality chocolates in the world – something that, in time, may well grow into a whole new industry for the Caribbean.
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