Taking chocolate from bean to bar
Making chocolate is big business. We took a trip to St Lucia to visit the Rabot Estate, home of Hotel Chocolat’s cocoa plantation to learn more about the chocolate making process.
St Lucia’s old capital, Soufriere isn’t much to look at with its down-at-heel streets, but head up the steep jungle-sided lanes towards the Pitons (the two mountains for which St Lucia is famous) and you’ll find the beautiful Rabot Estate in all its green and luscious glory. Home to Hotel Chocolat’s exclusive cocoa plantation, the 140 acre estate not only grows cocoa, but now also plays host to its own chocolate-themed restaurant, Boucan (the local term for a cocoa drying shed) and a 5-star hotel. Yet it was only as recently as 2006 that the full potential of the plantation was re-discovered and revived by Hotel Chocolat’s co-founder, Angus Thirlwell.
How cocoa came to St Lucia
St Lucia has experienced a colourful history, with colonialism placing the island under alternating French and British rule a total of fourteen times before Britain finally took definitive control in 1814. Its chocolate legacy dates back to the 1700’s, but the cacao tree was never native to St Lucia or indeed to the West Indies. It was only after Christopher Columbus discovered the existence of the cacao tree in Central and South America and took it back to Spain that it eventually became popular in Europe. With Europe lacking a tropical climate (cacao grows best in temperatures of between 25 and 30 degrees and a humidity of 85 per cent), countries such as France, the United Kingdom and Holland began cultivating cacao in their colonies in the Caribbean.
Chocolate wasn’t always made as a bar
Chocolate in the form that we know it today didn’t arrive on the scene until over 100 years after Christopher Columbus’ original discovery. Up until then, it had been taken as a drink much in the same way as the Maya and the Aztecs from South America had consumed it. Proving too bitter for the European palate, honey, sugar, vanilla and alkaline salts were often added to improve the taste.
It was thanks to Dutch chemist, Coenraad van Houten that we have chocolate in the solid form in which we eat it today. In 1828 he created a press to remove about half the natural fat (now known as cocoa butter) from chocolate liquor to make the product much more consistent in quality and cheaper to produce. Finally, in 1847, it was Englishman Joseph Fry (hurray!) who discovered a way to make chocolate mouldable when he mixed the ingredients of cocoa powder and sugar with melted cocoa butter to form the first bar.
Reviving St Lucia’s chocolate industry
Despite the West Indies once playing an important role as a cocoa-growing region, the Caribbean accounts for just five per cent of the total world production of cocoa for the global market, which is worth in total US$4 billion annually. Hotel Chocolat hopes to change all that.
Now at the centre of cocoa expertise on the island, it counts 155 independent cocoa growers as members of its Engaged Ethics Sustainable Cocoa programme. The growers benefit from advice and technical assistance; the supply of high-quality Trinitario seedlings (the type of cacao plant grown in St Lucia) and more importantly, a guaranteed market for their entire crops at prices above those of the world market. The vast majority of Saint Lucian cocoa goes into Hotel Chocolat creations and the estate now proudly produces 20 tonnes of cocoa each year.
The estate and its production are continuing to expand. Until now, all chocolate production took place in the UK after the nibs (the dried and crushed chocolate beans) had been exported. This year the estate will start to make its own chocolate, taking the product quite literally from bean to bar right here on the Rabot Estate.
Making chocolate as we know it today
Accompanied by a small group of British, America and Canadian chocolate lovers, we took the Bean to Bar experience to make my very own little bar of chocolate. If you thought this might be easy, you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s hot and tiring work!
Stage One: Pound those nibs
Nibs are dried and fermented cocoa beans which have been cracked into pieces. These form the base of the chocolate and have to be crushed until they turn into a paste. After an even more thorough bashing and they eventually turn into a liquid that looks like melted chocolate.
With a hot mortar and pestle it takes about 20-30 minutes, and under the hot sun it is certainly testing work!
Stage Two: Add the cocoa butter and mix in
This is the easy part and makes the liquid runnier still. This task would normally be undertaken by a conch, a machine that can blend the two ingredients for anything up to 78 hours to give a mild, rich taste. Lower quality chocolate is conched for as little as six hours.
Stage Three: Add sugar to taste
It’s important to note that this is 100% chocolate and even with sugar tastes incredibly bitter.
Stage Four: Pour into the mould and leave to set in the fridge
Not an absolute necessity, but a trip to the restaurant for a nice chocolate-infused lunch together with a cool glass of white wine comes highly recommended while you wait.
Stage Five: Ta-Da!
The chocolate bar is set and ready to eat. Hmm . . . . tastes a bit grainy!