Co-founder Angus Thirlwell tells of Boucan’s beginnings...
The story of how we became cocoa growers and then went on to build a hotel on our cocoa estate is all about fate and serendipity. If I had not grown up in the West Indies, and if I had not been sent an old book by a customer as a complete act of kindness, none of this would have happened.
One of our customers, Michele Clare, was clearing out her husband’s office due to his retirement when, under a dusty pile of books, she came across one that was just too nice to throw away – a 1920 copy of Cocoa & Chocolate: Their History from Plantation to Consumer. As a member of our Tasting Club she knew it would be of interest to me and very kindly sent it to me in a Jiffy bag with a short note.
By chance I was just setting off to visit my father, who still lives in the West Indies, and tucked the old book in with my luggage. It turned out to be all about life on cocoa plantations in the West Indies in the early 1900s and was beautifully written. It stirred in me a desire to jump into this world.
And so the idea was born to grow our own cocoa, and we found the ideal old estate in Saint Lucia with fantastic views of the famous Piton Mountains. Co-founder Peter Harris and I raced over and, in the face of strong competition, within a week of finding it we signed contracts to buy Rabot Estate, which had been in the same family since the 1930s. Everything was finalised and Rabot Estate became ours in April 2006.
It was a bold move, growing our own cocoa, and one that went against the overall trend in the chocolate industry at the time – which was to specialise more and more in one particular part of the chocolate-making process. Rabot Estate was beautiful but dishevelled and reflected the impoverished state in general of cocoa in Saint Lucia. It was going to be a big job to turn all this around, but also a great adventure!
We found our own ‘Cocoa Indiana Jones’, Phil Buckley, to lead the project and, after a few years, the adventure had reached a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ moment. The estate was back in shape, we had created an Engaged Ethics programme that now includes more than 170 other cocoa growers on the island, and medals were in the trophy cabinet after we made the first ever single-origin chocolate with Saint Lucian beans (previously all the cocoa from the island was blended with other types).
One evening, while sipping rum on the verandah of the old estate house, Peter, Phil and I mused about how special the estate felt and how much we wanted our customers to be able to experience it. The rum kept flowing and by the early hours we had a business plan sketched out to build a boutique hotel on the estate in the middle of the cocoa groves. In the morning the plan still looked good so we decided to do it. Boucan by Hotel Chocolat opened in January 2012 and we are very proud of it – connecting as it does the agricultural and hedonistic sides of cocoa.