Cocoa is one of St Lucia’s most important crops….yes that’s right cocoa…in other words chocolate….see I told you this island was perfect! Chocolate is actually a big part of the country’s culture and heritage dating back to 1745 when the Rabot Estate, St Lucia’s first cocoa plantation, was established in Soufriere.
Fast forward to 2003 and Angus Thirwell, co-founder of Hotel Chocolat, acquired the 130 acre estate and breathed new life into St Lucia’s flagging cocoa industry. Now Hotel Chocolat is the only company in the UK that owns its own cocoa plantation and can officially called themselves ‘cocoa-growers’ as well as makers.
In 2012, Boucan, a luxury hotel and restaurant, was added to the estate so that Hotel Chocolat customers can immerse themselves in the beauty of the estate and experience both the agricultural and the hedonistic sides of cocoa growing. Mr S and I had come to Boucan for the day to enjoy their signature ‘Tree to Bar’ experience, involving a tour of the cocoa plantation and later the opportunity to make our own chocolate bar.
The hotel itself is totally different to Sugar Beach and Jade Mountain, minimalist chic, modern and super stylish.
Dark wood is used throughout the hotel so that it resembles a chocolate bar itself. I loved the hotel and with only 14 rooms there’s a very luxurious and exclusive feel to it.
Our guide walked us through the plantation that the hotel lies on, pointing out the different varieties of cocoa pods grown in the Rabot Estate and telling us a bit about the history and the takeover of the plantation by Hotel Chocolat.
Cocoa farming had been at an all-time low but when Thirwell purchased the estate he cultivated the land and introduced an Engaged Ethics program. The program meant strong relationships were formed with other local farmers so that they sell Hotel Chocolat all their cocoa for a premium price.
Our guide also explained how Hotel Chocolat works closely with Reading University in order to research cocoa growing techniques; a knowledge shared with the other local cocoa growers. I found the explanation fascinating as Hotel Chocolat is already a brand I love and it was great to know that they are pioneering in sustainability and community all the way through to the final product.
The pods are picked, taken to the fermenting room and then left to dry in the hot St Lucian sun where they’re occasionally raked and turned.
Shoots from the strongest plants, as identified by Reading University, are kept in the green house adjacent to where the beans are dried.
The guide explained that when these cocoa plants are manually grafted they reach maturity much quicker than if left to nature. We watched staff members graft the tree and then we had the opportunity to do it ourselves.
Everyone’s tree is listed and recorded so that you can return to visit your tree and perhaps in years to come, taste the cocoa produced. It’s a little gimmicky but I love the idea that I have my own tree growing in St Lucia and maybe one day I will sample the fruits of the ‘SilverSpoon’ plant. The cocoa beans are sent to the UK to be turned into chocolate but plans are afoot to build a chocolate factory on the Rabot Estate, the only one in the world next to a plantation.
After the plantation tour we were led back to the hotel to make our very own chocolate bar. We were each given a work station consisting of a pestle and mortar and the ingredients for our creation.
This is what the cocoa bean looks like before it’s been processed and dried. They’re known as jungle M&Ms and if you suck on them the white sludge on the outside is actually very tasty, it reminds me of mangoes and it’s used in some of the cocktails are the hotel bar. We were warned not to bite into one though are they are bitter on the inside.
Cocoa beans were added first and we pounded away at them grinding them finely into a pulp…As we were pounding the teacher explained to us a bit more about the origins of chocolate dating back to early Central America. It was later that the Mayans and Aztecs started drinking chocolate but it wasn’t sweetened until the Spanish bought the cocoa beans back to Europe in the 1700’s. It was in 1847 that Englishman Joseph Fry invented the chocolate bar when he discovered that you could mould the chocolate by adding butter. Rodolphe Lindt in Switzerland invented the conching machine which made chocolate smoother and melt in the mouth. Much later the Lindt chocolate bunny was invented, clearly one of the best chocolate inventions of all time ;).
We added cocoa butter to the chocolate melting pot and we were advised to add sugar to our tastes before pounding all of those ingredients together too. I must admit that it was hot work and I did need some help to get my mixture smooth.
The mixture was then poured into moulds and taken away to set. Mine wasn’t as perfectly smooth as it should have been but I was still very much looking forward to tasting the final product.
While we were waiting we were rewarded for all our hard work by lunch at Boucan’s Restaurant.
Like the rest of the hotel the restaurant looked like a chocolate bar with dark wood and a minimalist appearance. There was a stunning view of the Pitons, an open kitchen and bar area and even a small shop selling chocolate, rum and beauty products made from cocoa beans.
Rather excitingly the menu at the restaurant is completely inspired by the cocoa growing on the Rabot estate and the Hotel Chocolat have developed their own ‘cacao cuisine’. Every dish on the menu contains cocoa in some form whether as a light spice, or an infusion, celebrating the fact the cocoa has been used in savoury food for over 3,000 years – it’s only been used as a sweet ingredient for 500!
Many of the drinks also use cocoa as an ingredient and having heard about the fresh cacao Bellini on the tour, I knew what I was going to have.
The Bellini is made with prosecco and lemon verbena, the sweet white pulp from around the cocoa bean is added as well as soursop juice. The soursop is a native Caribbean fruit with a citrus flavour (we sampled it both here and on our tour of the Emerald Estate) that is commonly used in juices and sherberts. You’d think a cocktail with those ingredients would be overly sweet but actually it hit the perfect acidic notes on my tongue and I loved it. Mr S went for a Chocolate Daquiri containing rum, cocoa and cream. Personally I thought this would be a mistake as we were about to have a three course meal and I didn’t want him to be thwarted by a heavy choc-tail but actually it was much lighter than I thought it would be and very drinkable with savoury food.
Our breads came with a selection of cocoa infused dips including a nutty tasting cocoa butter and a chocolate balsamic vinegar. I was expecting the latter to be a thick gloopy vinegar but actually it was like ordinary balsamic with a hint of the toasty flavour of cocoa.
My starter was vegetable ti jardin or marinated nearly raw seasonal vegetables with soft-boiled eggs.
To liven up the simple salad, Boucan provide a trio of accompanying dips: cacao pesto, cacao aioli and white chocolate horseradish all made using bitter dark Saint Lucian chocolate. It may sound a little strange but the balance worked very well with the slightly bitter dressings harmonising with the sweet carrot and beetroot in the salad.
Mr S also chose a salad containing local leaves and grapefruit, used to contrast with the white chocolate and coconut dressing, and cocoa nibs croutons. It was light and refreshing, perfect for the very hot day.
I chose a trio of brochettes; vegetable, chicken and fish. I have to say these were rather bland and I was disappointed as I’d expected more from the innovative cacao cuisine.
Mr S fared better as he stuck with our favourite dish of the holiday, a delicious, buttery fish roti, served with those addictive plantain chips and rice with cocoa nibs. As we’d come for lunch, we were restricted to a set menu, in hind sight I’d have loved to try dinner at the restaurants too.
I actually slightly gutted to say we were also a bit disappointed by our desserts, but perhaps it was our fault for not fully understanding the menu descriptions. With the day already sweltering and after all our *hard work* pounding the cocoa beans we both fancied ice desserts.
With mine called an iced parfait ‘ivory hued ice cream’ dipped in ‘estate made Saint Lucian dark chocolate’ with orange and chocolate ganache, I guess I’d expected slightly more that a (very) small choc ice.
While Mr S’s grandly titled ‘A Story of Chocolate in Ice.’
Was actually three scoops of ice cream that are intended to represent the progression from pod to chocolate. Starting with cocoa pulp sorbet, to cacao nib-infused ice cream to finally estate chocolate ice cream. Perhaps I’m being unfair, as though they were small and not very exciting the two desserts were very tasty and we were given some complimentary chocolate truffles to go alongside.
As we were finishing our lunch we were presented with our own handmade chocolate bars. I tried both mine and Mr S’s and I have to admit that our own handiwork was nowhere near as good as the real thing made by Hotel Chocolat. The bar was still slightly grainy from the cocoa beans and we hadn’t added enough sugar so they were both quite bitter – but I loved that fact that we’d made them all by ourselves!
Though our lunch experience was a little mixed, I totally loved the Hotel Chocolat Tree to Bar experience and it’s definitely a must-do when visiting St Lucia – just make sure you grind your beans finely enough 😉