Learning about Cacao at the Grenada Chocolate Festival – the Currency of Freedom:
No self-respecting chocolate lover could resist a Willy Wonka style Golden Ticket invitation to the Grenada Chocolate Festival. Apart from the promise of a lot of chocolate, a trip to this stunning Caribbean island would have been incentive enough for me. And, no, I didn’t go expecting Oompa Loompas. But, what I hadn’t anticipated was the significance of cacao and artisan chocolate to the people of Grenada.
As I am rapidly discovering, each Caribbean island has a unique identity, a kind of raison d’etre that is rather hard to pin down. For me, Antigua was all about optimism, about taking as much from tourism as possible, with an almost colonial style. St Lucia, in contrast, seemed something of a reluctant First Lady who would have prefered things without the 24×7 bodyguard and constrained lifestyle her new role afforded.
What of Grenada then? A peaceful island just off the main Hurricane path, the people of Grenada have an infectious enthusiasm for their home. They seem to have found something quite special. The islanders care for each other and welcome visitors. The place isn’t overwhelmed with resorts and many of the hotels are family owned and run, whether that’s True Blue Bay, Petite Anse where we visited for lunch and the best rum cocktail ever or Calabash where I stayed.
The Grenada Chocolate Festival, my justification for a trip to the island, has run now for five years. Rather appropriately given the fundamental role of the Aztecs in the history of chocolate, the Grenada Chocolate Festival was founded by Magdalena Fielden, a native Mexican who had come to Grenada in 1996 with the intention of raising her family and running True Blue Bay Resort. It was serendipitous that just four years after she arrived on the island Mott Brown started the first Bean to Bar Chocolate production with the formation of the Grenada Chocolate Company.
Now, if you go to the Chocolate Festival, you’ll have all sorts of options, from yoga with chocolate to rum and chocolate tasting sunset cruises. But, my advice is to ensure you spend plenty of time visiting the Cacao estates and tree to bar chocolate companies; at the heart of chocolate on the island, it is there you will learn what is so very special about Grenada.
It may seem perverse that an anarchistic antihero in the form of Mott Green could turn the economy of an island on its head. But that is just what seems to have happened on Grenada. As his partner Edmond revealed, this ‘white man’ just appeared and started camping near Hermitage, his village. What would you do? The community of Hermitage decided to embrace Mott Green.
What inspired the creation of the first Chocolate Company on Grenada? Well, a desire for a better, freer society where everyone shared in the wealth from the island’s produce. Instead of selling Cacao to the multinationals, Mott Green’s Heath Robinson styled Chocolate Company meant that the farmers could share in the profit from their fine Cacao by producing tree to bar artisan chocolate. As he said ‘It takes a whole village to make a bar of our chocolate’. So, the Grenada Chocolate Company was founded in 1999 by Mott, Doug Browne and Edmond Brown. Cacao beans are supplied by the Organic Cocoa Farmers’ and Chocolate-Makers’ Cooperative of Grenada.
Grenada does have some natural advantages – all three types of cocoa beans are still found here – forastero, trinitario and criollo all look and taste slightly different when they are ripe. The very rare criollo isn’t sought after commercially because it is small, but it is the Rolls Royce of the trio, with unique flavours. The slightly acidic soil, high rainfall and steep slopes provide the ideal growing conditions for cacao too. But historically, the large chocolate manufacturers have just exported the beans to be blended rather than producing single origin chocolate.
The co-operative now has over 200 acres of organic cocoa farms. Hardly surprising as The Grenada Chocolate Company pays around 65% more per lb for the beans than the local price too. When it comes to producing chocolate, the beans are carefully fermented on site and hand sorted. Then they produce their own cocoa butter which is added back into the chocolate.
Visit today and you’ll find a cheerily efficient operation where skilled workers help to produce fine chocolate. Where, the local farmers endorse the business, where Edmond is still directing affairs (both Doug Browne and Mott Green are sadly no longer with us). But the vision lives on and not just at the Grenada Chocolate Company. There are now a total of five cocoa estates on the island producing tree to bar artisan chocolate.
At Crayfish Bay you’ll find a parallel universe created by Kim and Lylette Russell. One of the oldest estates on the island, the 15 acres of Crayfish Bay was once a Molasses factory called ‘Non-Pareil’. It became a working cocoa estate in the 18th Century and was renamed Crayfish Bay. Kim Russell has an intriguing approach to managing his 15 acres estate and to making a living for himself. As he points out, if you are not rich by the age of 65, you are unlikely to ever be rich. Yet, his form of co-operative living seems to make for a wonderful lifestyle. He and Lylette took over the estate after it was completely destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and they have been working hard to find their own place ever since
As he told us
‘I don’t employ people – I think employment is a form of slavery’. I own 15 acres of land – well that’s a ludicrous statement – you can’t relate a piece of land to a pile of money. I see myself as the Custodian of this land – responsible for the grass, the plants AND the people. I’ve given absolute control of the land to the local people. They farm it, they can plant whatever they like. When they farm cocoa, I buy it and I pay double what they get down the road. ‘
Instead, Kim takes the cocoa beans and processes them himself using a set-up which he’s created so that in his words it would be affordable by a young Grenadian who wanted to follow the same route. His winnowing machine is made from a clapped out blender (with blunt blades) and a vacuum cleaner. At a cost of $130, it does the same job that a commercial machine will do – the cheapest he could find was around $6000!
This is hands-on chocolate making – everything from fermenting the beans (which takes around a week but is moderated depending on the weather) through to tempering the final chocolate. The initial cocoa mass is aged for around 3 months before it is processed, which Kim says improves the flavour in much the same way as ageing wine. Lylette showed us how she’d originally made chocolate by hand, tempering using cold water and hot water. She used to temper three times a week, varying the water temperature between 28C and 45C to create a perfect, smooth mixture – with around 8lbs of chocolate in each batch. Now that process is semi-automated but, it shows the level of care that has gone into creating this chocolate.
Just along the road at the Belmont Estate, you’ll find another Organic Farm with tree-to-bar chocolate. Dating back to the 16th Century, the estate was originally a coffee and sugar plantation. Cocoa and nutmegs, still produced today, were introduced in the 1800s. Originally a partner with The Grenada Chocolate Company and part of the Grenada Organic Cocoa Farmers’ Co-operative Society Ltd, Belmont have now set up their own small chocolate factory.
It’s a fascinating place to visit, still owned by the Nyack family, the first Grenadian family to buy the estate in 1944. Apart from the recently opened chocolate factory, there’s a museum and restaurant where you can enjoy some excellent local food. It’s a well-established tourism destination and unlike the other estates we visited, the relatively new chocolate production seemed an extension of their agri-tourism. That said, I particularly liked their salted 70% chocolate!
What is perhaps most remarkable about Grenada’s chocolate industry is that although it still only accounts for a tiny proportion of the country’s economy, it has grown rapidly. From the conception the Grenada Chocolate Company in 1999 to today, there are now five bean to bar chocolate producers on the island. As part of the Grenada Chocolate Festival, I got to try all five in a hosted vertical tasting with acclaimed chocolatier Will Torrent at Mount Edgecombe Estate. More of that to come…
Meanwhile if you are thinking of visiting Grenada yourself, why not pin this post for later
I travelled to Grenada and stayed as a guest of the Grenada Tourism Authority. For more information about the island please check their website
I was visiting to attend the Grenada Chocolate Festival.
I stayed at Calabash Hotel a five-star boutique hotel on Grenada
There are direct flights to Grenada from London with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. For more information see the airline websites.