With those ethereal volcanic peaks, the glorious Caribbean climate and the emerald green landscape, St Lucia is the stuff of dreams. And just when we thought things couldn’t get any more photogenic, we arrived at The Rabot Estate – a rich and fertile cocoa plantation and every chocoholic’s dream.
This picturesque spot hasn’t had the easiest of treatment. Since The Rabot Estate was established in 1745 it has been hit by hurricanes at least three times. For a while, its future was bleak. That’s until leading chocolatiers Hotel Chocolat transformed it into the upscale hotel and Boucan restaurant and 140-acre land of cocoa decadence it is today.
It seemed only right to tell the tale of St Lucia’s most famous chocolate plantation this week. Not only is it Chocolate Week (we’ll do anything for an excuse to enjoy one of the most pleasurable food substances known to man), I felt compelled to tell the story about the hard-working people who run Boucan and The Rabot Estate. They were warm, welcoming and incredibly passionate about keeping this ethical and sustainable plantation thriving. It has left a long-lasting impression on me ever since.
A Bean to Bar Tour at The Rabot Estate
We met Kurt Regis who had we not arrived late (I drove an automatic hire car 50 km through St Lucia’s heart-stopping mountain roads) would I’m sure, have spoken for hours about cocoa farming and the science of the Trinitario Bean.
Despite our lateness, he gave us a fantastic crash course in the botany of this vast gem of agriculture. The Trinitario Bean which is largely farmed at Boucan today, is a hybrid of two types of cocoa species – The flavour-rich Criollo bean and the hardy Forastero Bean.
Thanks to Dr F.J Pound and a group of scientists from Trinidad who cross-fertilised the species in the early 1900s, these trees are now highly resistant to disease and can live up to 100 years. That’s good news for we chocoholics.
After a fascinating lesson in the history of the cocoa bean and complex farming techniques they use to help the Rabot Estate thrive, Kurt invited us to create a young hybrid Trinitario tree ourselves.
We delved into the humid greenhouse filled with young cocoa trees, to meet a team of growers, including Lucine, who took us through the grafting process using a sharp knife, nylon, and a very steady hand. The vital bits are joining each plant at the right part of the node.
That’s as far as my plant expertise goes I’m afraid, but the result was our own Trinitario trees which were labeled with our names. Soon, they’ll be planted in the Rabot Estate and help make the world some chocolate (you’re welcome). Fingers crossed they’ll last the intended 100 years.
Once, and only once, you’ve had a thorough introduction to the history of The Rabot Estate can you thoroughly appreciate the next stage of the Bean to Bar experience. Yes, it’s the part where you get to make your own chocolate.
At this point, we were joined by a group of other British chocolate lovers who gathered around the table to listen to our two expert chocolatiers Kurt and Cuthbert. The ‘Bar’ bit of the tour involved a thoroughly entertaining journey through the harvesting, roasting, grinding, conching and tempering stages of chocolate production. We also swotted up on the essential chocolate history facts, from the invention of the conch machine by Dr Lindt, to the creator of the first chocolate bar, Joseph Fry.
After grinding the cocoa using a pestle and mortar, we added cocoa butter to form a creamy paste.
How well you grind the cocoa has a huge impact on the texture of your final chocolate bar. I clearly didn’t put in enough elbow grease because when I came to pick up my chilled bar some hours later, it was crumbly and highly crystallised.
Still, you can’t beat that feeling of eating a piece of chocolate you’ve made yourself, in the stunning surrounds of this Caribbean island. Plus, we were also handed some pre-prepared liquid chocolate to mould ourselves.
To end the Bean to Bar experience, guests are invited to dine in the Rabot restaurant which overlooks the hotel’s gorgeous infinity pool. It’s here you order from a mouth-watering menu of cacao-infused Anglo-Caribbean cuisine.
For those who haven’t already read about this in My Food Highlights of 2014, our order comprised a roast cacao nib-encrusted scotch egg, curried coconut and cacao Caribbean chicken with a white chocolate salad and a Rabot Chocolate Lava pudding. I know, amazing, right? BC had the St Lucian rum chutney pork terrine and the cacao pod hamburger.
Oh yes, and we sipped on cacao martinis. Heaven.
If only I could take the next flight back to St Lucia to do this all over again. I will do one day, but until then, let’s celebrate National Chocolate Week by thanking the incredibly passionate people behind some of the world’s best chocolate. If you’re reading this guys, please look after my tree!
For more information about The Rabot Estate in St Lucia, visit the Hotel Chocolat website.