Adventures in Chocolate

28 Apr 2017

Cocoa Planet

We’ll stop at nothing to make the best chocolates on the planet. From mule trekking in Colombia and delivering babies in Ghana to getting to the roots of Saint Lucia, there’s more behind your favourite bar than you might think…

All chocolates are not created equal – you can tell as much when you taste them. But there’s a reason that ours taste the way they do: we’ve gone the extra mile – often literally – to find the best ingredients from around the world and bring them home to our Cambridgeshire Inventing Room.

On a mule in Colombia

In March 2014 in the mountains of Colombia, our Head of Chocolate Development, Adam Geileskey, heard rumours of a rare white Criollo cocoa growing just 26 miles from the Caribbean coast. The catch: it was only accessible by mule.

Already impressed by the local cocoa of Tumaco, on the western coast of the country, he had now reached Arauca in the northeast, where talk was of the white bean being prized for its lack of bitterness. He was told it grew on the land of the indigenous Arhuacos, a Chibchan-speaking community who have harvested cocoa for more than 2,000 years. Intrigued, he knew he had to try it for himself – and for us back home.

Almost four hours after he and his local guides mounted their mules, riding them as far as they could before disembarking and following a riverbed for the last leg of their journey, Adam finally met the Arhuacos of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Calling themselves the ‘Big People’ – the rest of us are the ‘Little People’ – the community believe Sierra Nevada is the heart of the world and that it’s their duty to protect it. Here Adam discovered just four trees growing the precious white Criollo, and sporting only three mature pods between them.

“It felt like going on a pilgrimage,” he says, “a quest to see authentic wild cocoa growing in its natural habitat.”

There may not have been enough of the rare bean to begin production back home in the UK, but were it not for his detour north he may never have come upon the unusual, malty Aracataca bean today found in your Rare & Vintage Aracataca, Colombia 95% Dark Chocolate Bar . It was from the same visit that he brought back the irresistibly complex Cienaga, which you can taste in its various attitudes in our Rare & Vintage 67% Supermilk, 75% Dark and 80% Dark Chocolate Bars.

Saint Lucia beans, Hampshire buffalo

Eight years earlier, a trip to the Caribbean had already revealed the potential of another bean: this one wasn’t being shown the respect it deserved, and neither were its farmers.

The cocoa on Saint Lucia is deemed ‘fine flavour’ by the International Cocoa Organization for its beautifully nuanced profile – think a powerful cocoa kick with accents of single malt whisky and oak-aged red wine – and is a rarity that makes up less than 10% of world cocoa yield. When we first encountered it, though, the cocoa economy on the island was declining and the precious bean was being used solely in blends with poorer-quality cocoa, so all that wonderful taste was being obscured.

We realised that it was going to be a challenge to create a single-origin Saint Lucia chocolate bar, but we were already in love and knew we wanted to bring its unique flavours to you – so much so that we bought a historic cocoa plantation, Rabot Estate and got stuck in at the roots of the cacao tree, growing our own.

That wasn’t all we wanted to achieve on the island though. At the time, cocoa-growing was a route into poverty for many farmers who, like those who cultivate grapes, deserved better. So we began travelling up and down the isle, shaking hands and forming partnerships with – to date – more than 170 independent farmers as part of our Saint Lucia Island Growers Engaged Ethics programme. In a nutshell, what we promise them is a guarantee to buy their whole crop, at above world bulk-cocoa price, as well as access to top-quality seedlings and free technical help. Cocoa-farming is now a viable career path on the island again.

You can find unadulterated Saint Lucia cocoa in our Rare & Vintage 100% Dark Chocolate Bar, or experience its various personalities in the 85% Dark, 72% Dark or 50% Milk incarnations – but the most exciting interpretation of the bean so far has to be our innovative 65% Buffalo Supermilk Chocolate Bar.

Once we had our treasured Saint Lucia cocoa from our Island Growers, we could highlight different aspects of that nuanced profile. Working with dairy from the biodynamic, organic Laverstoke Park Farm, we experimented with our very first buffalo milk chocolate bar – and not just any milk, Supermilk: robust cocoa notes, creamy milk and less sugar than a typical dark.

Buffalo milk is exceptionally creamy and has a certain je ne sais quoi that lends our Saint Lucia a curiously expressive edge. But it doesn’t just happen by accident: there’s a careful balance being struck on Laverstoke’s Hampshire smallholding between observing nature and learning from burgeoning scientific research that’s being struck – but that’s worthy of a story of its own. 

New life in Ghana

It’s not only Saint Lucia where we’ve been engaging ethically with cocoa farmers. Since 2002, we’ve been working with the Green Tropics NGO to drill wells and set up cocoa nurseries to give farmers in Osuben, Ghana young, robust, disease-resistant cocoa varieties with much bigger yields than their existing older trees.

In late December 2015, the first baby was born at a medical centre in the region built with funds raised by our Tasting Club members. Today, it provides crucial healthcare to 5,000 people living nearly 30 kilometres from the nearest hospital, with little access to transport.

The community showed their gratitude by appointing our very own Adam a tribal chief or ‘nana’, with special responsibility for helping them to grow their cocoa industry. As of April 2017, he has just returned from his third visit since the centre opened, where he has been exploring with the NGO Green Tropics how to implement our shared vision for a cocoa-farming community that’s successful and wealthy enough to invest in projects like the medical centre without needing outside help.

In the meantime, our cocoa from Ghana brings its unmistakable notes of freshly baked sourdough and white coffee to your Rare & Vintage 100% Dark Chocolate Bar as well as the 85% Dark, 75% Supermilk and 55% Milk.

Your chocolate discoveries

Have you made a cocoa find of your own – maybe something from our Rare & Vintage chocolate or one of our Selectors? Tell us your story on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – we’re @HotelChocolat!