A Chocoholic’s Guide
to the Windwards and T&T
by Ann Vanderhoof
When it comes to food, I’m a savoury rather than a sweet person — with one exception: I love chocolate. Any type will do in a pinch, but given a choice, I’ll go for dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa every time. I even rationalize it (as I do with red wine) as actually being good for me. (To my mind, the folks who discovered cocoa contains anti-aging and heart-disease-fighting antioxidants and mood-elevating serotonin deserve more research grants.)
When we first cruised the Windwards and Trinidad in the late ’90s, all the high-end chocolate for sale was imported. Island-grown cocoa beans were exported and turned into chocolate elsewhere; the beans that remained behind were used to make cocoa balls and sticks, and not much else. Not that I have anything against a nice cup of West Indian cocoa tea made from one of these balls (truth be told, I’m a big fan), but it’s just not the same as a silken bar of dark chocolate, a truffle, or a bonbon slowly melting on the tongue.
Oh, how times have changed. Cocoa estates that became uneconomical during the last century, and were left derelict with cocoa pods rotting on the trees, are now being brought back to life as the world price for fine-flavoured cocoa beans rises and consumers buy into the trend towards “single-origin” and “single-estate” chocolate. And the beans aren’t merely exported anymore. Island entrepreneurs are now “adding value” to them in the Caribbean, making first-rate chocolate where the cocoa grows: Good news for cocoa farmers, who are being better paid for their beans, and good news for chocolate-craving cruisers who like to “buy local”.
Wherever we anchor our Tartan 42, Receta, I’m on the lookout for great island-made chocolate. Here is my Chocoholic’s Guide to what I’ve found:
Grenada’s Bars and Bonbons
The Grenada Chocolate Company is the best-established of the new breed of island chocolate makers, and its 60-percent and 71-percent dark-chocolate bars have long been cruiser favourites. But a visit to the company’s recently opened shop, Bonbon Chocolates, at Belmont Estate (at the northeast end of Grenada) reveals new pleasures. The Grenada Chocolate Company is now producing two additional bars that have surpassed the original two in my affections — one that’s 82 percent cocoa, and one called “Nib-A-Licious,” a 60-percent bar with pieces of cocoa nibs. The 82-percent is intensely fruity, and if you want the flavour of pure, rich cocoa unadulterated by much sugar, this is the bar for you. Eating the Nib-A-Licious is sort of like biting into a chocolate-covered espresso bean: the slight bitterness and crunch of the nibs — crushed roasted cocoa beans — contrasting beautifully with the smooth, slightly sweet chocolate around them.
As the name suggests, you’ll also find bonbons in the new Bonbon shop. Under the tutelage of Philadelphia chocolatier Eric Chocolates (surely a nom de guerre), several young Grenadians combine the Grenada Chocolate Company’s chocolate with island fruits, nuts and spices to produce treats such as chocolate-covered ginger (rationalize buying it as a seasickness preventative) and filled bonbons with passionfruit, guava, and other tropical-fruit centres. The cocoa-dusted truffle filled with local Rivers rum was, surprisingly, a standout — the harsh (some, like me, would say undrinkable), high-octane Rivers somehow mellowed when combined with high-octane chocolate.
If you’re lucky when you visit Bonbon, you’ll also find slices of a chocolate layer cake. It’s baked in a solar oven and then sandwiched with homemade sorrel, golden apple, or other fruit jam, depending on the season. Grenada Chocolate Company co-owner Mott Green describes the cake as kind of like a science experiment — it combines vinegar and baking soda (remember from your school days what happens?), which gives it a moist, light, fluffy texture.
You can feel good about buying Grenada Chocolate. It’s completely organic, and Mott and his partner Edmund Brown (a third founding partner is now deceased) have given the farmers who supply their main ingredient a real leg up: they’ve created a cocoa farmers’ cooperative, which owns a portion of the company.
(Aside: If you’re sailing between Grenada and Carriacou, you may spot a 13-foot Hobie Cat bouncing over the waves, and you’ll likely say to yourself something along the lines of, “Who in their right mind would sail a 13-foot Hobie Cat from Grenada to Carriacou?” Here’s the answer: it’s the Grenada Chocolate Company’s Mott Green, delivering chocolate bars to Grenada’s sister island. He even catches fish along the way. (When you’re in Carriacou, check for his bars at Patty’s Deli.)
The Grenada Chocolate Company’s tiny candy-box of a factory in Hermitage, up the road from Belmont Estate, doesn’t offer tours — a lot of people in a small space isn’t good for fine chocolate, which is very sensitive and picks up odours readily — but you can see part of the beans-to-bar process at Belmont Estate, where cocoa is grown and the beans fermented and sun-dried. If you visit the estate on a “buying day” during the cocoa harvest season, you’ll see farmers bringing their “wet cocoa” to the estate, and it’s fascinating to see it being inspected, weighed, and purchased.
St. Lucia’s Cocoa Cuisine
If the Grenada Chocolate Company is the old master of Windward Island chocolate-making, then St. Lucia’s Hotel Chocolat, which opened in March near Soufriere, is the new kid on the block — a bold initiative to revitalize the island’s once-flourishing cocoa industry. Yes, it’s actually a hotel, but it’s much more than that. Five years ago, Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris, founders of the beloved British chocolatier Hotel Chocolat, bought derelict Rabot Estate, St. Lucia’s oldest cocoa estate (it dates from 1745), and began rehabilitating the cocoa groves and restoring the old estate house. They started what they call an Engaged Ethics Cocoa Programme, signing on 112 St. Lucian farmers so far and guaranteeing that Hotel Chocolat will buy all the cocoa they grow, paying them 30 to 40 percent above world market price for their beans and guaranteeing them payment within seven days. (They’re also offering technical assistance and subsidized cocoa tree seedlings.)
Construction will start soon on a chocolate factory; for now, the beans are shipped to Hotel Chocolat in the UK and transformed into chocolate there.
The only bar available when we visited shortly after Hotel Chocolat’s St. Lucia opening this spring was a smooth, fruity 70-percent bar of “Island Growers” dark chocolate — which I can tell you disappeared way too quickly on our boat. But there was cocoa and chocolate aplenty in the Hotel Chocolat restaurant, Boucan (the Creole word for a traditional cocoa drying shed). The restaurant offers a menu of “cacao cuisine”: some form of cocoa in almost every dish. It sounded like a gimmick — over the top, even for an inveterate chocolate lover — but it turned out to be completely delicious. Drinks such as Chocolate Daiquiris and Cacao Bellinis (featuring the pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans in the pod) and dishes such as seared yellowfin tuna with a cocoa-and-herb pesto and dorado with a red wine and cocoa sauce take the bean in wonderful new directions. And don’t even get me started on the desserts.
Cruisers on moorings between the Pitons or around the corner at Malgretout can arrange a free shoreside pickup if they want to visit for lunch or dinner, or you can hoof it up the hill. (Hotel Chocolat is across the road from another place frequented by cruisers, the restaurant at Ladera resort.)
Chocolate Becomes Edible Art in Trinidad
From Brasso Seco in the north to Rancho Quemado in the south, cocoa estates are being revitalized with a vengeance on Trinidad. Demand still outpaces supply for the highly regarded Trinitario beans grown on the island. (Trinitario is a flavourful, high-yielding, hardy variety of cocoa that developed on Trinidad and is now also grown elsewhere, including St. Lucia and Grenada.) So prized are Trinidad cocoa beans that they fetch a premium price on the world market.
This cocoa renaissance has been accompanied by a bloom of small, high-end chocolatiers. Among them is architect-turned-fanatical-chocolate-maker Isabel Brash. She calls her business Cocobel, and her filled bonbons — their soft centres infused with Caribbean flavours such as sorrel, guava, passion fruit, ginger rum, and mango pepper — completely stole my chocolate-loving heart. Her beans come from her brother’s estate in southern Trinidad, and she makes the chocolate and processes the fruits for the fillings herself. Because of her background in architecture, she wanted her chocolates to look as good as they taste, and each flavour of bonbon is a different piece of tiny, perfect art — so perfect you hate (for a split second anyway) to bite in.
Since Brash’s fillings are made without preservatives, her bonbons require strict temperature control, and are best enjoyed within a couple of weeks — which means they can’t be sold very far from where they’re produced: in her home kitchen. She’s currently located near Westmall, but is moving to the Woodbrook section of Port of Spain soon. Luckily for cruisers, both spots are convenient to the anchorages and marinas in Chaguaramas. (She also sells at craft and gourmet fairs.)
When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a recent visit to sweet T&T, she was given a box of Cocobel bonbons, no doubt a very good thing for US–Trinidad relations. So, too, a gift was given to President Barack Obama when he was in Trinidad for the 2009 Summit of the Americas. Obama was given a box of Gina’s Chocolate Truffles, made by former lawyer Gina Hardy. These little gems are flavoured with ingredients such as Trinidadian rum and coffee. Her “Trini Truffle,” made with 54-percent dark chocolate and finely ground Trinidadian coffee, is apparently her most popular (and given the rate at which it disappeared from our box, I’m inclined to agree).
Due to the scarcity of Trinidadian beans, Hardy was working with imported cocoa beans when I met her last year. But times are changing quickly in the cocoa biz, and she’s now managed to get her hands on a supply of Trini cocoa. She’s experimenting with the best way to showcase chocolate made from it, and she reports that she’s developing a rum-and-raisin truffle especially to suit the raisiny flavour of her Trinidadian beans. I’ll be looking for it when Receta returns to Trinidad this hurricane season. If you’re not a visiting politician, you can look for Gina’s truffles in the Stechers chain of stores.
Pairing Chocolate with Rum on Tobago
I can’t vouch for Tobagonian Duane Dove’s chocolate firsthand — Dove was away when we visited Tobago, and at the time his chocolates were only available on the island at his estate — but they certainly get good reviews from others. His 70-percent Tobago Estate Chocolate bar is the first single-estate chocolate made from Tobago beans by a Tobagonian (albeit with the collaboration of a French chocolatier, and manufactured abroad. Which is kind of cheaty, but I’m inclined to forgive him.)
Dove’s shtick is more than just plain chocolate, however. He offers tours at his Tobago Cocoa Estate, near Roxborough, which include the option of a Creole dinner — followed by a rum and chocolate tasting session. It’s no accident that Dove is also a sommelier, who developed a special taste for rum while growing up on Tobago and Guadeloupe. (He subsequently settled in Sweden, and now splits his time between there and Tobago.) He believes that when these two tastes of the Caribbean are combined, they complement each other, “opening the palate to a new dimension in taste,” and he takes pleasure in matching up different styles of rum with various of his chocolates. Like all good cruisers, we have an ongoing “to do” list on Receta. One item on it doesn’t involve chores such as keeping up with the brightwork or solving that pesky leak in the head. “Go visit Duane Dove,” it reads.
Admittedly, there have been disappointments in my search to feed my chocolate addiction. I was tickled recently to find a very reasonably priced bar called “Elot Intense” in the hypermarchés of Martinique. The wrapper said this “chocolat noir” contained a minimum of 52 percent cacao and was made from beans and cane sugar grown on the island. Elot is a long-established Martiniquais chocolate company (founded in 1911), but most of its products qualify (at least to this taster) as candy more than fine dark chocolate. I was hoping the “Elot Intense” would be different. Sadly, no: It tasted of sugar front and centre, with cocoa taking a distant back seat.
Not all French West Indian chocolate is created equal, however, and in Deshaies, Guadeloupe (okay, okay, I know it’s not in the Windwards), I found a 90-percent bar called “Les Planteurs de La Côte,” produced by Les Suprêmes, an artisanal chocolate company. This one was the real deal. Although it had a less-distinctive flavour profile — less personality — than bars such as Hotel Chocolat’s and the Grenada Chocolate Company’s, it was smooth and rich and definitely worth a re-buy. Except for one thing: Even in the high-priced world of fine dark chocolate, it is ferociously high-priced: when you convert from euros, it cost almost US$9 for a 100-gram bar! And even a confirmed chocoholic can’t let her addiction deplete the cruising kitty too much.
For more information:
On Facebook: Gina’s Chocolate Truffles
Cocobel: [email protected] (website coming soon: www.cocobelchocolate.com)
Ann Vanderhoof is the author of The Spice Necklace and An Embarrassment of Mangoes, both available in paperback and Kindle editions. You can read more about her Caribbean adventures — including an occasional chocolate blog — on her website: www.spicenecklace.com.
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