The Caribbean cocoa industry has roots in colonial times, and piggybacking on the booming business of agritourism, the industry is being revitalized. According to The New York Times, the world price of cocoa nearly doubled from 2004 to 2008, and there’s a greater demand for the rare, fine-flavored beans the Caribbean is known for. Wine aficionados flock to Napa, Bordeaux, and the Loire Valley for wine tastings. Chocolate lovers, on the other hand, head to the southern islands, as what grows in the Caribbean is often referred to as the “champagne of cocoa.”
Choco-tourism is a budding movement across the Caribbean, and with free trade having all but destroyed the islands’ banana and sugar industries, the fusion of tourism and agricultural development is a welcome boon. Beyond the mega-resorts and umbrella-studded beaches, there are verdant cocoa estates and cocoa trails, fragrant rural landscapes and a chocolate-making culture that will forever ruin Hershey’s for the adventurous epicurean traveler and chocolate lover. From cocoa farms and chocolate factories to dedicated chocolatiers and artisan Bon Bon shops, here’s a chocolate lover’s guide to the Caribbean.
8 Ah Cacao Real Chocolate: Cancun & Playa del Carmen
Legend has it the Mayans, who are considered the inventors of chocolate, sacrificed humans in exchange for a good cocoa crop. Chocolate was a gift from Quetzalcoatl, "the feathered serpent deity,” and it was believed to be a bridge between heaven and earth. Chocolate production begins deep in the jungle. The Food of the Gods is hidden in the elongated fruit pods of the cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao). Cacao is native to Central America; Maya and Olmec civilization established the first plantations over 3,000 years ago.
Ah Cacao Real Chocolate café is named after the Maya ruler, ‘Ah Cacao.’ Founded in Playa del Carmen in 2003, the popular café specializes in fine cacao, but its coffee and vanilla products all come directly from local plantations, too. Mayan hot chili chocolate, spicy chocolate ice cream, chocolate mouse, chocolate frio, brownies, milkshakes and chocolate infused mochas, are just a sample of the items chocolate lovers will find at Ah Cacao.
7 Cocoa Cottage: Dominica
Cocoa Cottage is an eco-sensitive guesthouse located in the heart of Dominica’s picturesque Roseau Valley. Designed with local hard wood, lava stones, coral and bamboo, the boutique property is set in a rainforest amongst waterfalls, rivers, and various nature trails. The hotel is known for makings its own chocolate: CocoJazz.
CocoJazz is described as a bitter sweet symphony of earthy flavors, spices, and herbs. From roasted coconut shavings and tangy ginger to lemongrass and orange oils, the homemade artisan chocolates are blended with flavors from locally grown crops and spices. Cocoa Cottage is home to a chocolate museum, where visitors can learn about the history of the cocoa tree, chocolate making, and the health benefits of the "Food of the Gods." Cocoa Cottage’s chocolate samples include coco tea and homemade chocolate rum.
6 Violetta Fine Chocolates and Delft Cocoa Estate, Gran Couva: Trinidad
Located in the Montserrat Hills region of central Trinidad, Gran Couva is one of the world’s most feted cocoa fields. Its history dates back to the 1830s, when colonials, East Indians, French Caribbean émigrés and Venezueleans settled in Gran Couva –as well as northern Trinidad –to cultivate cocoa. The settlers bred their own bean, a hybrid known as trinitario; they combined the fruit-flavored criollo cocoa bean with the forastero, a bulk bean from Africa that’s said to account for nearly 70% of the chocolate produced.
The Delft Cocoa Estate belongs to the Montserrat Cocoa Farmers Co-op. Most of the beans grown in Gran Couva are exported to the Valrhona company in France, as the climate is more conducive for large-scale chocolate making in Europe than in the Caribbean. Naturally, Valrhona has a chocolate bar named Gran Couva, which pays homage to the region in Trinidad.
5 Agapey Chocolate Factory, Barbados
Agapey is one of about only 50 factories in the world that are considered bean-to-bar producers, a chocolate statistic that would make Willy Wonka proud. Agapey sources beans from the best cocoa growing regions in the Caribbean, and the small factory in Bridgetown uses traditional chocolate methods and machinery. There are 20 varieties of cacao tree, but hundreds of different hybrids.
However, when it comes to chocolate making only four types of trees are cultivated, and Agapey specializes in three: criollo, trinitario, and nacional. The chocolate factory uses locally grown Barbadian Plantation reserve cane sugar, which adds a distinctive flavor to the chocolate. An interactive tour of the Agapey Chocolate Factory is by reservation only.
4 Cocobel Chocolates, Trinidad
According to Isabel Brash, chocolatier and owner of Cocobel Chocolates, chocolate making, for her, is what Trinidadians call jumbie –an obsession. "Who knows how the original Americans (Olmec, Aztec, Maya) first found the way to transform a bitter bean into the delectable brew fit for kings?” says Brash. “This knowledge is part of civilization for over five thousand years, and available for anyone. I consider it my good fortune to have re-discovered it.”
In a chocolate kitchen in a house in Woodbrook, Port of Spain, Isabel Brash transforms cocoa beans into artisan chocolates with flavors like Basil Wild, Caramel Fleur de Sel, and Coco Truffle. She also weaves Caribbean flavors like mango pepper, rum-y raisin, and guava cheese into the architectural concoctions –which are like dainty, Rococo bursts of sweet milk chocolate and island life. All the cocoa beans come from her brother’s Rancho Quemado Estate in southern Trinidad and are grown with other trees including cedar, teak, orange, and coffee, which give the beans an inimitable terroir. There are plans for Brash’s chocolate kitchen in Woodbrook, Port of Spain to be expanded into a cocoa café.
3 Hotel Chocolat, St. Lucia
Set amongst the stunning Rabot Estate, St. Lucia’s oldest cocoa grove and plantation, Hotel Chocolat is near Soufriere, the old French capitol on the west coast of the island. The upscale boutique property doesn’t feature rooms. It features luxe pods, where the décor -rich mahogany floors, ivory-colored bathrooms –is designed to evoke chocolate.
The Chocolate Hotel is known for its Cocoa Juvenate spa and tree-to-bar experience, where guests select ripe cocoa pods from the surrounding trees and create their own chocolate bars. The chocolate-inspired cuisine at Boucan, the hotel's onsite restaurant, includes cacao ravioli, citrus salad topped with white-chocolate dressing, and yellow fin tuna with cacao pesto.
2 The Grenada Chocolate Company, Grenada
The Grenada Chocolate Company was founded in 1999. The cocoa is grown on a 200-acre organic farm by a cooperative of local farmers, and the chocolate factory’s single roaster is no bigger than a household oven. The factory can only process 400 pounds of chocolate a week, but the small batch approach to chocolate making has earned the company three silver medals at The London Academy of Chocolate Awards.
At the Grenada Chocolate Company, sustainability is paramount to chocolate making. The grass-roots enterprise uses solar power to fuel refurbished antique machines; cocoa is grown a mile from the factory and fairly traded; and the chocolate's bright, parrot-colored packaging is designed by a local artist. Chocolatiers have a saying: “The better it snaps, the better the chocolate." At the small, sustainable operation in the mountains of Grenada, the chocolate snaps beautifully.
1 Chocolate Festival of Belize, Toledo District: Belize
Located on the northeast coast of Central America, Belize has four major chocolate producers. Kakaw is based in San Pedro, Goss Chocolate on Seine Bight, and IxCacao and Cotton Tree are located in Toldeo. However, all of Belize’s chocolate producers use Toledo cacao, which is know for its superiority. The Chocolate Festival of Belize is a 3-day celebration of Belizean chocolate and the cacao culture of the southern Toledo district.
The Chocolate Festival takes place in late May, over the Commonwealth Day Holiday weekend. Visitors can sample chocolates flavored with organic orange peel, baalan nut, and bacon bits. From powdered cacao and baking chocolate to cocoa-butter lip balm and cocoa-butter soap, street vendors sell an eclectic variety of sweet products. Belikin, a Belize Brewing Company, crafts a chocolate stout for the event. The moderately carbonated, velvety beer has hints of vanilla and rum with a decadent chocolate finish. It’s best to be enjoyed and appreciated while listening to one of the Festival’s steel-pan bands, and not before attempting to explore the many caves, waterfalls, or jungle-covered Mayan ruins the Toledo district is famous for.