Chocolate. Loved or loathed, it’s hard to ignore. Indeed cacao, or cocoa to the uninitiated, is rapidly becoming the favoured foodstuff and supplement of choice in a host of European capitals and has long been hailed as the Food of the Gods. The Mayan elite, who revered it, were considered the original cacao farmers from nearly four millennia ago but recent archeological finds at Santa Ana-La Florida in Ecuador’s eastern Andes, ceramics from the earliest Mayo-Chinchipe site, contained cacao trace elements dated 1400 years earlier. Produced by cold pressing unroasted cocoa beans, it’s the essential ingredient in the chocolate we consume today—but is arguably as far removed from mass market brands like Cadburys, Nestle and the rest as it’s possible to get.
A study in California has just confirmed that higher concentrations of cacao in dark chocolate, ideally over 70 per cent, can lower stress levels, act as a mood enhancer, and improve immune system responses. In other words, the more cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood and immunity–yet it’s fair to say that most, people, have little concept of how chocolate is actually derived and some are even hard pressed equating cocoa with chocolate.
Other micro operations exist in Grenada, Trinidad and at nearby Fond Doux but now an extraordinary initiative at Emerald estate in the remote south west of Saint Lucia is delivering the only wholly organic single estate ‘tree to bar’ handcrafted chocolate using traditional fermentation, sun drying and polishing techniques. The groundbreaking project has been driven by the luxury resort of Anse Chastanet/Jade Mountain overlooking the iconic Pitons which has resuscitated the old estate’s rich volcanic soils and led to progressive change in other areas of community agriculture and organic practice. For several years the hotel has been a cutting-edge cultural operation with a strong elemental artistic outlook, a byword in fact in the region and beyond for style, innovation and the highest quality food. Owners Nick and Karolin Troubetskoy are visionaries in every sense and engaged their Consulting Chef Allen Susser and an agronomist specialising in propagation to oversee development.
“It’s been a fascinating journey”, says Susser, “and one I could never have envisaged taking. Our only instructions from Nick were that we weren’t competing with local farmers, quite the opposite in fact, and that we must seek to nurture more unusual greens like artichoke and asparagus which are difficult to source in the region.” All this has been achieved, and much more. A vast cornucopia of plants, shrubs, fruit and citrus trees, ornamentals, serried ranks of herbs and vegetables now vie for space on 40 acres tended by 18 staff, a veritable garden of Eden with an orchid house and another for micro greens; peat moss is used in seed germination, terrace cropping has been introduced and experiments are afoot with the intriguing stevia plant—sweet tasting and a potential viable alternative to sugar in cooking; produce for the twin resort is harvested three times a week and taken straight to the kitchens, underpinning the whole ‘farm to table’ ethos.
The original plantation had 1,000 cacao trees which are capable of living for a couple of centuries in the right conditions and only three varieties exist worldwide, forestero (used by Hershey and Cadbury), criollo (favoured in Belgian and Swiss products) and trinitario, which is a cloned hybrid of the former and predominates at Emerald. Ripe cocoa pods are sliced open to extract the white fleshy pulp interiors encasing the beans then fermented for a week beneath thick layers of banana leaf, before the separated beans are sundried on large pallets and turned for a further seven days before roasting at up to 270 degrees. There are now 2,500 trees including 500 saplings in the laboratory installed at Jade Mountain which supplies the pastry chefs and creates the sumptuous in-house bars from nibs and dark cane sugar—once sampled never forgotten. Master chocolatier Peter Gabriel rules the roost in his lair atop the resort, creating incredible arty sculptures which might earn a criminal record if you pinched a piece.
Gastronomic excellence has been a leitmotiv here for nigh on three decades of course, and Anse Chastanet was in the vanguard of a handful of hotels bent on reviving “real and rootsy” Caribbean cuisine after 2000. The then Head Chef sourced esoteric ingredients from nearby farmers in creating inspirational dishes which confirmed the versatility of even the more prosaic starchy vegetables classed as ground provisions—and laid the groundwork for the unparalleled culinary experience that the resort offers today. The current Chef de Cuisine at AC’s Tree House restaurant, Frank Faucher, has taken that vernacular to another level and has a remarkable backstory in his own right.
Raised as an orphan by his grandparents in the impoverished rainforest settlement of Fond St. Jacques, he spent three months as a hotel pot washer where he was told to “open your eyes and ask serious questions”. A committed Rastafarian, Faucher did both, and soon came to realise that sauces were the essence of quality cooking before undertaking various food and beverage courses; he now oversees 18 other chefs and calls his work “Caribbean and European fusion, tropical world cuisine.” A savant of organic vegetarianism, he conducts interactive classes with guests and is also firmly committed to educational outreach programmes on food and nutrition, an invaluable mentor in effect for the resort and wider
Both Susser and Executive Chef Juan Bochensky are multi-award winners with lauded international reputations but neither is basking in the adulation. “It’s a challenging environment”, confirms Bochensky who is well grounded in Asian techniques, “we have half a dozen fresh fish suppliers but imported limes, lemons and mangoes are embargoed by the government which is fair enough, but we also have 520 staff to feed on a daily basis as well. Our mantra is simple, we’re looking to make the food experience continually exciting whilst retaining true Caribbean authenticity.”
Onwards and upwards then—if inertia is anathema here, sensitive evolution is everything; the original boutique chocolate enterprise at Jade Mountain has grown apace in short time and, though the distinctive Emerald Estate bars are presently available exclusively at the resort, an overseas connoisseurs’ marketplace is already on the alert. Those Mayans were way ahead of their time. All you choccy lovers prepare for a new sensation.