A few years ago there was a rumor that the world would run out of chocolate by 2020. Thank God it didn’t happen, and in fact the opposite has happened in the Caribbean, with a revival of the cocoa industry and an explosion of chocolate makers.
Jamaica was the main supplier to Britain’s chocolate and coffee houses in the late 17th century, but before that Grenada, then a French colony, was the world’s largest producer of cocoa. Not bad for an island that’s only 12 miles by 21 kilometers. However, as Europe discovered its sweet tooth and other plantation centers prospered, the Caribbean chocolate market declined.
Now Grenada has seen the biggest boom, where half a dozen independent chocolate makers are booming and the island exports high-quality cocoa beans.
Booming: Grenada has seen a revival of the cocoa industry after a period of decline. Pictured is St. George’s, the island’s capital
If you’re vacationing here, it’s worth spending a day away from gorgeous beaches like Morne Rouge to visit a chocolate estate, see the cocoa walks, and partake in a tree-to-bar experience. Grenada even has a Chocolate Festival that takes place in mid-May, after the end of the winter season, when hotel rates are lower and the weather isn’t yet stifling.
The festival includes four days of tasting classes and talks about the three main cocoa beans – the two used in Grenada are the Criollo and Trinitario beans. You can sign up for hands-on chocolate-making classes and estate visits. The island’s microbrewery even offers a range of chocolate-flavored beers. The whole thing culminates in a gala dinner with ticket (evening wear not included), where all seven courses, from soup to dessert, contain cocoa or chocolate in bitter or sweet form.
As part of the festival, I join a group tour heading north along the coastal road that climbs over headlands and deep into vast bays to finally reach the cocoa plantation at Crayfish Bay. Here we walk through the plantation. Cacao trees stand 30 feet tall, their glossy dark green leaves glowing in the dappled sunlight. Above them soar shady trees called immortelle, but also known as “madre de cacao” or “mother of cacao,” whose orange blossoms set the Caribbean valleys ablaze every January.
Landowner Kim Russell describes the age-old process. Cocoa pods — yellow, green, brown, even scarlet — sprouting randomly from the stem and branches are harvested with a knife on a pole and broken open to reveal a tower of tightly packed beans sitting in a delicious, sticky white pith.
Glorious: James Henderson recommends taking a break from Grenada’s beaches like Morne Rouge Beach (above) to enjoy the island’s chocolate experiences
James took part in the annual Chocolate Festival, where visitors can learn about the three most important cocoa beans. A cocoa tree is shown
Back in the heart of the estate, in a group of old buildings with red tin roofs, we see the beans bundled in wooden crates and covered with banana leaves, where they are “sweated” for several days to ferment away the pulp. They are then spread out on trays on skids called “boucans” to air dry in the sun or be tucked back under a cover when it rains. We take turns “dancing” the beans by shuffling barefoot through them so they dry evenly.
The final stage is roasting. Kim flips a bean cage over charcoal. They give his (usually 75 percent dark) chocolate a distinctive, smoky taste.
The chocolate festival was created by Magdalena Fielden, a native of Grenada, originally from Mexico, who hosts the event at her hotel, the True Blue Bay Resort, in the southwest of the island. She lectures on the Mayan origins of cacao as a currency and how its bitter taste is key to Mexican cuisine.
The next morning I make my way to Belmont Estate, where Grenada’s chocolate resurgence originated. We observe the process in the new factory and in the visitor center. After roasting, the beans pass through a series of aluminum drums where they are screened (pods separated from the beans), blended (ground and mixed with cocoa butter and sugar, also flavored), and then conched (turned more to remove volatile flavors and get the right flavor find texture). The juicy, silky result is poured into molds and cooled.
In addition to 75% dark chocolate, Belmont makes a variety of bars flavored with nutmeg and sea salt, and even “Oil Down,” after the Grenadian national dish of salted meat and vegetable stew.
Chocs away: A Belmont creation at the Chocolate Festival (right) and chunks of the island’s specialty (left)
The festival ends with two dinners. The first offered seven courses, prepared by True Blue Chef Jose Luis Gomez and Executive Chef Ramces Castillo of Restaurant Gary Rhodes at the Calabash Hotel, and included cocoa secco and chocolate-flavored tapenade, chicken with cocoa nutmeg and finally sesame chocolates -Truffles with cocoa- tea ice cream.
The second was a twist on Grenadian street food, featuring chicken mole tacos, dark chocolate pork ribs, and cacao nib-crusted grilled fish—and a jump-up (party).
The True Blue Dock danced late into the night.
James Henderson was a guest of the Grenada Tourism Authority. The Chocolate Festival (grenadachocolatefest.com) takes place from May 13th to 18th. Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) flies three times a week from Heathrow via Barbados to Grenada.