To drink St Lucia’s thick, fragrant and famous cocoa tea for the first time is to discover something a little strange and absolutely wonderful. It was slightly nutty, toasted with a delightful blend of spices. The star of the show? The infamous cacao bean, a sacred substance that runs deep within Lucian veins.
Processing cacao and chocolate-making are indigenous practices. The various groups of Mesoamerica used the bean for everything: food, currency, tribute and religious ceremonies 4,000 years before Spanish colonialism. It was a sacred food that linked humans to their deities, a practice which continued into the next centuries. Cacao was worshipped during the Atlantic slave trade, with the crop’s increasing demand in Europe. With its popularity among aristocrats in the 17th century, a colossal network of plantations emerged all over the Caribbean with its main producers being Trinidad, Grenada and St Lucia.
Like its Caribbean neighbours, St Lucia’s economy was plantation based. Popular crops like cocoa, coffee, sugar and banana continued to be profitable despite the end of slavery, as post-emancipation governments used them as a means to further develop their economies. However, with the ebbs and flows of the global economy over time, many valuable resources took a back seat.
St Lucia’s cocoa industry is currently experiencing a revival after an extended period of stagnation. The banana industry declined in the 1990s, ultimately sending the island into a desperate search for another source of revenue. Its successful comeback has taken many by surprise. Previously, cocoa was considered a hidden and rare commodity that very few had the privilege of trying. But now, the country has been catapulted into the flurry of chocolate tourism enthusiasm.
Plantation owners in St Lucia have maintained production to an extent and preserved its historical value. The care taken in the tree-to-bar process, tedious as it may be, makes a big difference in taste and texture. It is also important to mention that sugar plantations played just as a vital role in producing more of St Lucia’s luxuries. After all, chocolate without sugar can be a dull affair indeed. Fond-Doux Plantation and Balenbouche Estate in particular have done well in showcasing the island’s legacy of making high quality products by focusing on demonstrating local traditions and preserving history.
I was impressed with the time and dedication put into such a craft as the processing of cocoa has not changed for the last few hundred years. The beans from the three main species (Forastero, Criollo and Trinitario) are fermented for several days in a series of wooden bins, under the cover of banana leaves. They are then transported outside to soak up the harsh sun’s heat since cocoa pods are very sensitive to their environment. Businesses try to grow their cocoa on mountains to get as much sun as possible and escape the smells and pollution of nearby towns. It is entirely possible for a poorly located crop to cause your coffee or chocolate to taste like smoke or diesel, hence the importance of its seclusion from main roads. Agriculturalists try to grow them among mango, guava and orange trees. The dried beans are then transported for grinding, and polished with a traditional cocarina dance.
But what makes St Lucia’s cocoa different from the rest? One reason is that in St Lucia cacao has become one of the most versatile and important foods in the culinary world. St Lucia’s cocoa is not sweet. It can be used in almost anything, be it in seasonings, pasta or even meats. The culinary possibilities are endless, which has prompted many estates to continue growth and harvesting.
To add that uniqueness, the warmth and diversity Lucians are known for have inevitably found their way into the food. The originality and creativity of chocolatiers, their experiments with mixing cocoa with natural ingredients like hibiscus flower, mango and rosemary make their products stand out. However, top chocolate producers like Cadbury mix their chocolate with many chemicals and preservatives. St Lucia’s products are purely organic.
The humble cacao bean has become a symbol in the island’s ingenuity and freedom from the confines of colonialism. The intricacies of the cocoa’s complexity, with distinctive tones of bayleaf, cinnamon and clove, make for a beverage mixed with years of history and flavour you have to savour yourself to believe.