Tropical Chocs

Only during the short, frenzied feeding days of Easter do we eat even more chocolate. At this time of year, even after the saturation stuffing of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, the pumpkin pie and Christmas puddings, there always seems to be room for a chocolate. And another, and another. For countless thousands of severe cases …

Only during the short, frenzied feeding days of Easter do we eat even more chocolate. At this time of year, even after the saturation stuffing of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, the pumpkin pie and Christmas puddings, there always seems to be room for a chocolate. And another, and another. For countless thousands of severe cases — the hopelessly obsessed — the closing of the year heralds a time when their passion for “the food of the gods” is accepted and copied by all. It’s a time of sweet extravagance, high art, and dazzling packaging. For the lover of chocolate, life doesn’t get much better than this.

One severe case is Rosemary Stone-Hirst, a Trinidadian and the only manufacturer/exporter of hand-made chocolates in the Caribbean. An ex-fashion and food editor of the Trinidad Express and later, food columist for the Trinidad Guardian, Rosemary says she’s “in lust” with chocolate. For someone so infatuated with the stuff, she cuts a trim, attractive figure, hardly the sign, you’d think, of a person preoccupied with a chocolaty passion.

“Since I’ve owned the Chocolate House, I’m slimmer and healthier. It may be a paradox, but it’s worked for me. It’s not the chocolate that’s putting the weight on; it’s the diet. Even if you have high cholesterol, it can be good for you because the good cholesterol in a fine chocolate balances the bad cholesterol in your body. Yes, it can be addictive; that’s because of an ingredient with a very long name that occurs in the cocoa. It releases the love strands in your brain. It makes you feel good. You fall in love with chocolate. Anyone who knows or writes about it will tell you chocolate is love.”

There was a time when Rosemary didn’t like chocolate, far less love it. Then, in 1985, Queen Elizabeth II visited Trinidad and Tobago. During the visit, Her Majesty was served chocolate truffles made by the Chocolate House in Trinidad, on board Britannia. It was reported that, after the grand banquet, her Lady-in-Waiting sent a note expressing how much Her Majesty had enjoyed the truffles, and please could she have some more. A big box packed with assorted chocs was shipped to Britannia; how long they lasted is not on record. Rosemary followed up the story by visiting the Chocolate House. She couldn’t keep away, and when it was put on the market in 1993, she snapped it up.

It’s an irony that not only is Rosemary so slim after five years of tasting each batch, but that her company is the only one in the Caribbean, as far as she knows, to make hand-made chocolates and export them. It’s an irony, because the finest chocolates you may ever have tasted, whether Belgian, Swiss or English, are flavoured with Trinidad cocoa; though it is too rich to flavour chocolate on its own, and is blended. Some of the world’s oldest cocoa estates were/are Trinidadian; the Spanish are said to have planted cocoa in Trinidad as early as 1525. Trinidad and chocolate were made for each other, yet it’s taken centuries for original Caribbean chocolates to make their mark on the world.

Had you been born with a congenitive chocoholic condition and lived in the 16th century, life would have been truly miserable. The chocolate bar was hundreds of years away and the only form of chocolate was a drink, described variously as: “spicy and scummy”, and seeming “more a drink for pigs”. In 1569 Pope Pius V tasted a cup to determine whether it was a food, thus breaking the rules of Lent. It tasted so foul that he decided there was no need to ban it.

Though the first cocoa was exported from areas of Venezuela, Ecuador and Trinidad, it was in the jungles of the Amazon that chocolate was born. By the seventh century the Maya Indians had established cocoa plantations, and invented a drink called xocoatl, or chocolatl. So prized were the cocoa beans that they were used as a currency. You could buy a pumpkin for four, a woman for the night for 10, and a slave for 100. In 1519 the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes was introduced to chocolate by the Aztec ruler, Montezuma.

But xocoatl was a far cry from a cup of Cadbury’s. Meaning “bitter water”, it was cold, made from corn meal, with chilli peppers, spices, water, and sometimes corn gruel or fermented corn mash or wine. Still, Cortez must have seen something in it, and he ensured cocoa trees were planted throughout the Spanish territories and African possessions. He wrote to Charles V describing a “divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food”. The drink was presented to the Spanish court and was later transformed by adding sugar and vanilla. There was no turning back for chocolate.

In 1606 Antonio Carletti of Italy created a chocolate drink whose recipe spread around Europe. In 1657, the first English chocolate houses opened, which were like pubs for the wealthy, with notorious reputations, just serving chocolate drinks. In 1728 J. S. Fry and Sons built the first chocolate factory in England, followed nearly 40 years later by Walter Baker in the United States. In 1828, a Dutch chemist called C. J. van Houten discovered a way to make chocolate powder by pressing the cocoa butter out of chocolate. It was at this time that chocolate took on a taste familiar to us today. Then, in 1876, a Swiss confectioner called Daniel Peter, invented milk chocolate by combining chocolate with Henri Nestlé’s new condensed milk. Hershey’s popularised the chocolate bar in 1941 by making a 600-calorie “survival bar” for the armed forces.

Nowhere in the long history of chocolate, though, is there mention of a Caribbean chocolate product — excluding mass-produced “shelf chocolates” – until now. Rosemary Stone-Hirst’s Chocolate House is a small operation with a handful of staff, specialising in labour-intensive luxury hand-made Caribbean chocolates. But what they lack in quantity, they make up for in quality, with tropical flavours unlike any you’ve tasted before.

The white “ponche-de-creme” chocolate, based on the famous Trinidadian alcoholic Christmas drink, is the only type of its kind in the world. It sold out in no time last year, and is now being patented. Other Caribbean delights include rum and liqueur-based chocolates, specialties filled with mango or guava, coconut and local coffee, and many more. Rosemary likes to celebrate the festive season with her “Chocolate Collection”, a mouth-watering assortment of uniquely Caribbean chocolates for Christmas.

So, go on, indulge yourself. They’re good for you, remember.