Beyond chocolate: essential cacao know-how

30 Jun 2022

Chocolate Knowledge

A juvenile trio of cacao pods

Cacao. Cocoa. Whatever you call it, a plant that has given us so much over the years. The Mayans named it ‘Theobroma Cacao’, which translates as ‘Food of The Gods’. They could march all day and fight a battle with nothing to eat but a little bag of cocoa beans. They’d win, too.

Yet today, so much Mayan cacao know-how has been lost or forgotten.

Most people know that cacao, or cocoa if you prefer that spelling, is what gives chocolate its gloriously complex and satisfying flavour profile.

But are as many of us aware of the savoury potential that cacao offers? It’s not a new-fangled fad or tenuous trend. Humans and cacao go back together 3,000 years in a rich, intertwined history. Only the last 500 years have been about sweet chocolate; the previous 2,500 were focused on the savoury. And for good reason – cacao is a fabulously tasty ingredient.

We’ve spent over 20 years dedicated to premium, ethical chocolate-making. We’re intensely passionate about cacao’s journey from bean to bar. But why stop there?

We’ve made it our life’s work to unlock the full potential of this marvellous plant.

As cacao growers, with our own organic, sustainable farm, we’ve learned how to take care of farmers and the environment, while cultivating the best possible cacao. As restauranteurs, with a restaurant in St Lucia and another in London’s Borough Market, we’ve dedicated ourselves to unlocking the full flavour potential of cacao. As a hotelier, with our own ’paradise hotel’ in St Lucia, we’ve explored every possible way to use and celebrate the cacao plant. And we haven’t even mentioned our award-winning chocolates.

Cacao is more than an ingredient to us. It’s the bedrock of all our endeavours.

What’s in a name?

We like to use the classic Mayan spelling ‘cacao’, but many others stick to the modernised ‘cocoa’. This nomenclature is further obscured. Many Americans use the term ‘cocoa’ to describe what the rest of the world calls ‘hot chocolate’.

And the word ‘cocoa’ has become the standardised prefix for products such as ‘cocoa butter’ and ‘cocoa nibs’. You can call them that. Whether you prefer to say cacao or cocoa, we’ll know what you mean.

Unpicking the pod

Once picked, the cacao pod has several parts. Most chocolatiers take the beans for chocolate-making and throw the rest away. But that would not align with our dedication to sustainability: our respect for the planet and the plant.


Surrounding every bean inside the cacao pod is a sticky, translucent white liquid called the pulp. It’s absolutely delicious. We’ve long been using it in our Cacao Bars as a signature cocktail ingredient and in sorbets and ceviches. Our Cacao Bellini is a must-try if you ever visit.


The cacao nib is a secret weapon at our restaurants. With a tangy, spicy and complex flavour profile, it brings depth and character. Nibs help us reimagine traditional dishes with a cacao twist. Many people think cacao cuisine means chocolate in every dish. They’re pleasantly surprised when they try our menu. Nibs are savoury and have a crunchy, satisfying texture when ground.

Essential cacao nib know-how

Knowing how to extract the best flavours from your cocoa nibs is essential to many of our recipes. It’s easy to buy cocoa nibs these days, but they can be of variable quality. Follow our tips below to make sure you get the most flavour possible from your nibs.

Awakening your Nibs

Often your nibs will have a silver-grey hue to them as they have oxidised around the outside. This is harmless, but we recommend you grind them vigorously in a pestle and mortar for 30 seconds. You’ll see the nibs turn a gorgeous mahogany brown, their amazing flavour and aroma awoken at the same time.

Soak them in Water

After awakening, the nibs may still be hard and flinty. Soak them in a little hot water (just enough to cover them) for about 20 minutes which will soften them, the soaking liquid can be set aside as a flavoursome stock.

Storing your Nibs

Just like coffee, roasted nibs should be kept in an airtight container. If you are able to source ‘just-roasted’ nibs or have made your own, you can freeze them in an airtight container until needed, retaining maximum flavour.


Around every bean is a hard shell. Most chocolatiers discard them. But, among other things, shells are a rich, complex infusion for teas and beverages. We use them to make our Cocoa Gin, Cocoa Beer and Cocoa Tea Infusions.


The hard outer shell of the pod. You’d imagine there isn’t much you can do with such an ingredient. We discovered it makes wonderful, nutrient-rich compost, which help us grow more cacao on our farm. We encourage our farming partners to do the same.

Cacao & Coconut Hand Cream, made from cacao butter


The natural vegetable fat within a cocoa bean. The butter is extracted by grinding and pressing the bean. Cocoa butter melts at body temperature, giving chocolate its famously sensuous texture. About 50% of a bean is made up of cocoa butter.

While present in chocolate, it can also be delicious in beverages and creamy dishes. You may also be familiar with it in beauty products. It’s incredibly good for your skin, so we use it in products like our Honey and Chocolate Lip Balm and Cacao and Coconut Soap.


The dark brown part of a cacao bean – what remains when the butter has been pressed out. The powder is separated from the bean through grinding and pressing and has all of cacao’s flavour and antioxidants. Make sure to avoid ‘Dutched’ or alkalised powdered cacao. Alkalising is a process that darkens the colour and smooths the flavour, often to hide the use of poor-quality ingredients. Alkalising also destroys 60-90% of the antioxidants present in chocolate.


The bean is the poster-boy of the pod. Fermented, roasted and conched, it’s the staple ingredient in most chocolate. Of course, many chocolatiers skimp on this more expensive ingredient and rely on higher sugar or filler concentrations. But that isn’t our way. We are firmly committed to making the best possible chocolate with the best possible ingredients. And, we pay our farmers well above market-rate for every bean they can grow.

The Character of Cacao

The flavour of cacao and the chocolate it produces varies depending on where the cacao is grown. Different growing regions have different personalities, each pairing well with other ingredients. Here are some examples:

Madagascar, Vietnam

Fruit-led flavours, refreshing in the mouth – perfect with fruits, dark meats and game.

Saint Lucia, Trinidad, Java

Complex and multi-layered, with fruit and roasted flavours jostling for position. Goes with pork, chicken, rums and wines.

Venezuela, Dominican Republic,

Peru, Ecuador

Roasted flavours, led by mellow notes of roasted nuts. Ideal with fish, eggs and desserts.

Our Rare & Vintage single origin Colombian Almond chocolates

Types of Cacao


One of the most celebrated cacao varieties, renowned for its delicate flavours. It’s also the most susceptible to disease and one of the hardest to farm successfully. The name is derived from the Spanish for ‘native’, dating back to when the Spanish first arrived in Central America.


Another cacao variety, most commonly associated with cacao from West Africa, although the fine cacao from Ecuador is also a variety of Forastero. Forastero is derived from the Spanish for ‘foreigner’, as it originated from outside the Central American trading regions.


A hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, it’s a fine cacao, combining the excellent flavours of the first with the hardiness of the second. Trinitario was first created in Trinidad in the eighteenth century and is common in the West Indies.

It’s the dominant cacao in Saint Lucia and our Rabot Estate plantation.

Types of chocolate


A soft filling made from chocolate mixed with either cream, fruit pulp or alcohol.


A style of super-smooth chocolate

made from ground nuts and chocolate.


A filled chocolate with a soft centre, typically made with a hard shell, sometimes dusted with cocoa powder.

High-cocoa Chocolate

A term used to distinguish quality chocolate. High-cocoa chocolate replaces sugar with cacao. We define high-cocoa chocolate as: dark chocolate with a minimum of 70% cacao, milk chocolate, 40%, and caramel or white chocolates, 35%. Our Supermilk chocolate contains a minimum of 65% cacao. The average milk chocolate on the high street contains 20-25% cacao.

Demystifying Cacao Percentages

The percentages used on chocolate labels can sometimes seem a bit confusing. A 40% milk chocolate, for example, is not made with 40% milk. The percentage always refers to the amount of cacao used in the recipe, and the rest will be either all sugar (darks) or milk and sugar (milks/whites).

You’ll find higher percentages in dark chocolate recipes, with less in milk, and the least in white. Surprisingly, one of the UK’s most famous dark chocolates contains just 39% cocoa, and its milk counterpart only 23%. That means the largest ingredient overall is sugar.

We believe this is wrong. We always prefer to use more cacao in our chocolate for an authentic and satisfying cacao hit.

We put 40-70% cocoa in our milk and Supermilk chocolate, and 70-100% in our dark. Our white chocolate has a much higher cacao percentage than average, at 36%.

Sugar only costs a tenth of the price of even the cheapest cacao beans, so it’s no wonder that it is tempting for low­quality makers to use too much of it. But in the world of fine chocolate, deciding on whether to use, say, 73% or 75% cocoa in a recipe is the chocolatier’s choice and depends on the quality, character and flavour profile of the bean harvest. In many ways, deciding the cocoa percentage is like deciding the alcohol level in a good wine.

Nowadays, over 95% of our cacao is grown in Ghana, where gentle farming methods deliver nature-positive farming.

Origin and terroir

Like many crops, the exact location it was grown, and the purity or mixture of beans, has a profound impact on taste and texture.

Single-côte Cacao

Harvested from a clearly defined single growing area, smaller than a whole estate, and with the same terroir conditions, e.g. the Marcial and Pepiniere côtes at Rabot Estate, from which we have made single­côte chocolate.

Single-estate Cacao

Cocoa grown on a single plantation or estate, with distinctive flavours that may vary from harvest to harvest.

Single-origin Cacao

Cocoa grown in one region or country.

House Blend/Grade

A deliberate blending of cocoas from different origins to achieve a consistent

‘house’ flavour, every time. Distinct from our single origin/estate chocolate, whose flavours can vary with each harvest.

Diversity of plant, animal and insect life is better for the environment. And cacao thrives in it.

Cacao and Biodiversity

Unlike many crops, cacao loves to grow among shade-giving plant life. Shade and biodiversity nourish the soil and protect the land from the hot sun. Healthier soil means more climate-resilient farmlands with greater productivity. It also means more help is required at harvest to nurture these biodiverse farmlands while maximising the harvest for farmers.
Over 20 years of working with farmers, we realised that to both increase productivity and protect the earth from climate change, farmers needed specialist training and additional labour at harvest. So that’s what we provide. Through Gentle Farming, our farmers can grow more, earn more and practice nature-positive farming.

Bean to Bar

Want to find out more about chocolate-making? Our Bean to Bar Experiences, available in London’s Cocoa Vaults and Leeds’ Chocolate Metropolis locations, are a hugely entertaining journey into everything chocolate. You’ll learn how to taste the difference between different types, origins and blends, and get to try your hand at making your own chocolate from scratch.

If you’re looking for new adventures in your own kitchen, why not find out what tools our chocolatiers use and try it yourself at home.

Gentle Farming

It’s not just what we do with cacao once harvested that’s innovative. Gentle Farming, or Kookoo Daakyepa in the Ghanaian Twi dialect, is our pioneering approach to cacao farming the right way. It’s been carefully, progressively developed over 20 years. Fairness for farmers and their families and nature-positive farming are its core aims. We now have over 2,500 farmers in Ghana plus the Island Growers in St Lucia practicing gentle farming. The impact on their lives and lands is exciting. If you’d like to learn more, our Head of Cocoa Innovation explains it eloquently here.

Roots to Wrapper

Finally, immerse yourself in the journey our cacao goes on, ethically and sustainably grown, harvested, dried, roasted and finally being crafted into our delicious chocolate. Nothing artificial ever goes into our chocolate. And we use as much of the cacao pod as possible in our range of cacao-inspired products.