Exploring the World’s Best Chocolate and Cacao.
While I’d love to claim that I’ve spent the last year climbing mountains, diving for hidden treasure or zip-lining across the jungle, 2018 for me has definitely been a year in which I’ve indulged one of my greatest passions – chocolate. Not intentionally, you understand. It’s just happened that way…
The cornerstone of the year for me was a visit to the Grenada Chocolate Festival where I met farmers, artisan chocolate producers and chocolatiers and learnt much much more about cacao, about how chocolate is produced and about the artisan chocolate movement itself.
It’s something I can heartily recommend to everyone with an interest in chocolate – and for that matter, with a passion for sustainability and ethical food production. The story of chocolate in Grenada is a fascinating and unique one. The island’s inspiration came in the form of an American, Mott Green who arrived on Grenada, fell in love with the island and pitched a tent on the beach. After befriending some of the local farmers, Mott was persuaded to move camp up into the hills close to the village of Hermitage, St Patricks. There, he conspired with local cacao farmers and they came up with the idea of raising the value of their cacao production by producing artisan chocolate. Thus the Grenada Chocolate Company was born. Now, there are four more bean to bar chocolate companies on the tiny island – and an annual festival where you can do everything from rum and chocolate pairings through to being a cacao farmer for a day!
On a separate trip to the Caribbean, I also visited St Lucia – and fulfilled one of my own personal travel wishlists – to visit the famous chocolate boutique hotel – Boucan, the Hotel Chocolat estate. It didn’t disappoint at all and I thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on bean to bar experience. I wasn’t staying there though – and of course, that has now given me a very bad attack of hotel envy! I’d love to actually stay at Boucan, with that infinity pool looking out over the Pitons and with the cacao themed restaurant and bar.
Apart from the Caribbean, I’ve also been travelling in Belgium. My first interest in artisan chocolate came from an extended stay in Brussels. Each night there would be a tiny square of exquisite chocolate on my pillow, which I’d try my best to save. And, walking around the streets of Brussels even then, you could see artisan chocolatiers at work. Well before the days of the London food scene, I’d never experienced fine chocolate. From that moment on I resolved to eat less chocolate – but only the finest, made with pure cocoa butter and with a high percentage of cocoa solids.
Of course, a trip to visit Bruges brought all that back to me and I did manage(!) to pop into one or two (or three or four) chocolatiers while I was there.
Visiting York reminded me how fundamental the chocolate industry was in that part of the country. It was an industry dominated by Quaker owners who brought with their businesses a unique and broad-reaching paternalistic ethos to support their workforce. The result is a regional heritage that is heavily influenced by the chocolate and confectionary factories which provided everything from housing to sports facilities and dance halls for their workers.
By contrast, just outside Stratford upon Avon, there’s a great example of the grown of an entrepreneurial artisan food movement in the region, with Henley chocolates. I thoroughly enjoyed my chocolate making workshop there – and since I’m still buying their chocolate online, they must have done something right!
Where to next? It’s that time of year when we all start to make plans for the New Year and I’ve certainly caught the chocolate bug! I’ve got a wishlist of three places to visit next year to continue that chocolate theme.
Firstly Mexico, the cuna de cacao (birthplace of cacao). Not only does the Cacao tree originate from Mexico, but the country has a long association with chocolate – nowhere else in the world has the Cacao bean played such a significant role in the development of society. That pre-dates even the Aztecs, to Maya civilisations around 1750BC. Today cacao is widely used in Mexican cuisine – and that in itself is something I’d love the chance to explore.
Next, Sicily and the Noto Valley. Somewhere I’ve visited before where the Spanish influence was particularly significant and where chocolate is still made using ancient Aztec methods. My fleeting visit to Modica has just left me wanting to spend more time there.
Finally, Costa Rica where cacao has a particularly special significance. The Chorotega and Bribri people there regarded cacao as a sacred crop. Not only was it used as currency until the 1920s, but it’s also used to create a special chocolate drink for rituals and celebrations. Today Costa Rica produces some of the finest chocolate in the world and I’d love to explore what makes it that way.
The world of chocolate has plenty more to explore and I am sure that even if I manage to visit those destinations on my wishlist in 2019, I’ll only find more places that just need to be checked out. If you are keen to find out more about where to stay, I’ve been working with Expedia to highlight some great hotels where you can indulge your chocaholic streak. There are recommendations both in destinations I’ve been to already and in some that I’m planning on visiting soon. Remember, the best thing about travelling for chocolate is that you get to taste some wonderful produce along the way.