The history of the Caribbean is intertwined with its agriculture which in turn is dependent on its hot, rainy, tropical, and lush climate. From sugarcane to coﬀee, and spices to cacao beans, the region is rich in ingredients to produce some of the world’s finest chocolate. At Nutmeg & Co., we can rightfully say we have been bestowed the honour of representing some of the region’s top chocolate makers, and we take this responsibility very seriously! That being said, we would like to introduce you to some of these master Choco-Preneurs and to tell you a bit about the painstaking process that makes cacao beans into chocolate as we know it: beautifully molded, painted, stamped, poured, and packaged ready-to-eat confectionaries.
First, one must know that some of the Caribbean islands grow the rarest and finest varieties of cacao in the world: the Criollo and Trinitario varieties of the cacao bean. To chocolate makers and chocolate connoisseurs, these beans are like gold. From seed to maturity, the trees can take up to 5 years for the pods to be ready to harvest.
For Cocobel Chocolate, owned by Isabel Brash, the beans come exclusively from her brother’s Rancho Quemado Estate in south Trinidad. The beans are transported two hours away to the chocolate kitchen at the house, which she designed and built-in genteel Woodbrook, Port of Spain.
These beans undergo several treatments (fermentation, drying, polishing, sorting, roasting, winnowing, conching and tempering) before they look like the delectable, smooth treats we all know and love.
The cacao pods are manually harvested on the estate and cracked open in a manner so that no beans are damaged. Beans and pulp are removed and put into a cedar box to ferment or “sweat” –as the Trinbago farmers would say. The beans are turned occasionally so that they ferment evenly over about 5-7 days. The temperature is monitored during fermentation to get consistency in the quality–but most farmers in Trinidad and Tobago still rely on the bean’s physical appearance as their experience has taught them.
Drying is the next stage. The beans are spread out on the wooden floor of the drying shed, and the traditional rolling roof is pulled back so that the sun can dry them out naturally. If it is rainy and there’s not enough sunlight – as can happen quite often with a rainforest climate – some estates will use dryers or heat lamps to help with the process. The beans need to be dried until the moisture level is about 7% not to get moldy. Humidity is the biggest battle for farmers during the time it takes to get from estate to chocolate maker.
After drying, some farmers will “dance” the cacao, the traditional way of polishing the beans. Some water is splashed onto the pile of dry beans, and the farmers will dance barefooted so that the beans rub together. This gives them a nice sheen which makes them more attractive to the buyer.
The chocolate maker’s task starts with sorting through the beans and removing any stones, other debris, or defective beans.
The beans are then roasted to develop the flavour. Every chocolate maker has their unique method (which includes temperature and time) to develop the flavor to their taste. Indeed, every variety of the cacao bean has a nature of its own and requires a diﬀerent roast to bring out its best taste. Sometimes there are even variations from harvest to harvest that require a good intuition for roasting to suit.
After roasting, the beans are cracked and winnowed. Winnowing removes the outer husk from the bean. Then the beans are broken up into little pieces called nibs. These nibs are ground to a liquid called cocoa liquor which is usually about 50% cocoa butter. The chocolate maker can separate the fat via a cocoa press to separate the cocoa butter and cocoa powder or use the liquor to make chocolate.
The liquor is mixed with sugar for dark chocolate or with powdered milk, cacao butter, and sugar for milk chocolate and then refined for some days until the taste and texture are satisfactory to the maker. Conching is the stage where the fine particles are rounded out, and the flavour is further developed; it is a slow lapping and mixing of the chocolate. You want to mellow out any notes that are too acidic; at the same time, over-refining and over-conching can also destroy some of the fine, delicate flavours in our cacao. The chocolate maker knows what notes are desirable and will conche until it is satisfactory. This could take days.
After all that, the chocolate must be tempered to be molded into bars, bonbons, or other chocolate-related confections and pastries. Tempering is the process of crystallization of the cocoa butter in the chocolate which requires cooling down to a specific temperature and agitating the chocolate simultaneously before molding or coating. Basically, you are getting the cocoa butter crystals in a tight formation. Well-tempered chocolate has an attractive shine on the surface and gives that great snap when you break it.
“Who knows how the original Americans (Olmec, Aztec, Maya) first found the way to transform a bitter bean into the delectable brew fit for kings? This knowledge has been part of civilization for over five thousand years and is available for anyone. I consider it my good fortune to have re-discovered it,” says Ms. Brash. “My chocolate making was born out of curiosity. It was an experiment in the transformation that transformed me. When interest becomes an obsession, an all-consuming passion, we say you are possessed, you ‘have a jumbie’. My jumbie is cacao, chocolate.” (www.cocobelchocolate.com)
The Grenada Chocolate Company
The Grenada Chocolate Company was founded in 1999 by Mott Green, Doug Browne, and Edmond Brown, who had the idea of creating an Organic Cacao Farmers’ and Chocolate-Makers’ Cooperative. This radical new business model created the first “Tree to Bar” chocolate this century, boosting the local economy in the village of Hermitage, St Patricks. Mott Green often said, “It takes a whole village to make a bar of our chocolate”. The factory produces high-quality organic dark chocolate using, of course, the world-famous Trinitario cocoa beans that grow right on their doorstep. The chocolate factory is nestled in lush cocoa groves in Grenada’s pristine rainforest.
Because small batch chocolate-making was rare in the 1990s, the Grenada Chocolate Company had to create many of their own processing methods, designing specialist small-scale processing machines and refurbishing antique equipment to meet the requirements of their unique situation. Most of the machines were designed in the early 1900s, harking back to a time when quality had precedence over quantity in the world of chocolate-making. And they did something else very radical for the time: they solar-powered the factory. (www.grenadachocolate.com)
Strategically located in Barbados, Agapey Chocolate (www.agapey.com) is located in the hub of the region, which has allowed them to intimately source cocoa beans from the best cocoa growing plantations in the West Indies. They also use world-renowned, locally grown Barbados Plantation Reserve Gold cane sugar, adding a delightful special caramelized flavor to the chocolate. Within the factory, they implore traditional methodologies and antique equipment with their antique German 6ft roaster dating back to over 70 years. These techniques bring forth the finest flavors of the cocoa beans and golden sugar. Of particular note are the caramel-filled dark chocolate bars. These bars have been recognized at an international level for their exceptional flavor and quality. (source: worldwidechocolate.com)
The Caribbean & Chocolate Today
The cocoa industry in the Caribbean region has been experiencing a resurgence in more recent times. There has been an increase in the number of cocoa entrepreneurs in the Caribbean who are starting artisanal ‘bean to bar’ chocolate brands. The advantage that these brands have is that they have full control over their production, and they do not need to import any of the raw materials needed to produce fine chocolate. They sell their chocolate locally and regionally at farmers’ markets, hotels, gift shops, cafes, and tourist experiences. And there is plenty of scope for them to export to larger markets in North America, Europe, and Asia as artisanal chocolate is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the global chocolate market. (source: www.tiharasmith.com).
About Nutmeg & Co.
Nutmeg & Co. is what we like to call the British Virgin Islands’ flagship gift boutique. Located on Waterfront Drive, directly across from the international ferry terminal parking in Road Town, the shop represents many local small business owners, artists, and artisans whose wares are displayed and sold in one location. Among the BVI-made brands and products that we carry are Sunny Caribbee spices and hot sauces, EC Soap Co. bath and body lines, Samarkand jewelry, annie macphail™ recycled sail bags, to name a few.
And of course, we carry all of the chocolate brands you just read about, so please do come in as we sample a diﬀerent brand or flavour of bar each Saturday from 13 November through Christmas. Try them all and pick your favourite! Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us to pre-order for corporate holiday chocolate gifts or gift baskets, so you receive them in time!
The shop is open from 9 am – 5:30 pm daily, and 9 am – 1 pm on Saturday. Masks are required. You can also visit our Facebook page (facebook.com.nutmegandcobvi) to shop online and jump on our Instagram (@nutmegandco_bvi) for a great gift.
ideas. www.nutmegandcobvi.com. 284-494-1426 or WhatsApp 284-342-9993.