Grenada’s brown gold: organic cocoa

It’s known as the Spice Isle for its nutmeg, but Grenada has other, darker pleasures to offer... high quality organic cocoa.

Cracking the cocoa — removing the hard outer shell to reach the pulp with the cocoa seeds inside. Photograph courtesy the Belmont EstateDancing the cocoa — the traditional method of polishing the cocoa beans to a high sheen. Photograph courtesy the Belmont Estate

Grenada is known as “the Spice Isle”, but the island’s artisan organic chocolate has won awards – and fans – among lovers of the dark pleasure. Chocolate doesn’t start life in a foil wrapper, though. It begins as a bean hidden in the heart of a pod hanging from a tropical tree. And if you’re in Grenada, there’s a great place to learn all about cocoa and cocoa farming, plus have lunch in a marvellous restaurant.

The Belmont Estate in St Patrick is in a verdant, hilly district, which is deliciously obvious when one is seated in the open terrace of its restaurant. Décor is “island style”, with colourful place settings and rustic furnishings, a theme that suits the down-home buffet menu of island favourites like callaloo and fish. The meal can be washed down with a fresh glass of juice made from fruit grown on the estate itself.

As much fun as that is, the best is yet to come. Belmont offers tours of its cocoa fermentary, where fresh beans scooped out of the hard green or orange pods are fermented – the first step in making chocolate.

A guide walks visitors through a “living museum” with photos of the cocoa trees, the harvest and the beans in the pods, culminating in the sight of hundreds of pounds of pungently scented beans, still encased in the moist white flesh that covers them in the pods, fermenting in wooden bins. The fermentation at Belmont is done in a traditional way, taking weeks to go from fresh, milky white to deep brown and smelling like old socks. The oldest beans are virtually steaming hot because of the fermentation process, and the guide will quickly replace the hemp sacking and banana leaves that cover the bins to keep in the heat.

From there, the beans – and the tourists – are taken a few metres away to the cocoa house, in which the beans are sunned. The “house” is a series of long wooden trays on rollers, which slide back and forth under a roof. When it rains the trays are hastily rolled under shelter, as the beans have to be kept dry.

In the trays, they are raked with the feet in the old-fashioned way, and guests can take a turn if they aren’t afraid of getting the aromatic pulp on their own dogs. “Walking” the cocoa in the sunshine dries the beans evenly, and readies them for the next step, “dancing” them. At Belmont the beans are poured into a copper vat, as they used to be in olden days, and to the beat of a drum, men and women dance on them in bare feet to polish them to a high sheen. In an industrialised process the beans can be polished by machine, but the Belmont way is arguably much more interesting to observe.
Belmont was bought by the Nyack family in 1944 for £35,000. The family had been nutmeg farmers, the estate’s marketing manager Paula Lewis said in an e-mail interview, and they rode out that crop’s crash during World War II to capitalise on its upturn and make a killing. The Nyacks still own the property and are responsible for processing some 500,000lb annually of certified organic wet cocoa, only a tenth of which is their own harvest. About 300 small farmers also bring their harvests to Belmont for processing, and the processed beans are eventually sold to the Grenada Chocolate Company.

“Grenada is known for having fine-flavoured cocoa,” Lewis said. “Since all the cocoa that we harvest at Belmont goes to the Grenada Chocolate Company, it is difficult to say that we are the top producer. As a cocoa agency we have the biggest market for buying, but we do not have the info to say that [we are] first, second or third in terms of the amount of cocoa bought.

“The cocoa we sell is always rated grade one, the highest grade.”

The lovely estate offers walking tours of its gardens and plantation, as well as cocoa-factory tours. The tours were started in 2002, Lewis said, but after a falling-off in visitors after Hurricane Ivan devastated the island, the estate remained closed until April 2007. But business is back up; last year some 4,500 people toured Belmont, Lewis said.

The 15,000 visitors who went there for lunch in 2008 had the opportunity to ring the old estate bell hung outside the restaurant. The bell, like many artifacts at Belmont, is a remnant of the past.

But the future is at hand, too. At the end of the tour of the cocoa processing plant, the guest gets to sample the fruity, smoky, bittersweet delight that is Grenada Chocolate Company 60 and 70 per cent chocolate. The latter was given a 2008 silver medal in the category of “best organic dark chocolate” by the Academy of Chocolate, a UK-based organisation dedicated to promoting real chocolate, as opposed to chocolate-flavoured candy. (Valrhona Cao Grande noir won the other silver in the category; Valrhona is a French brand that chocolate connoisseurs consider one of the finest in the world.)

The world’s largest candy and chocolate manufacturer – Mars, in the US – does billions of US dollars in sales every year; the Grenada Chocolate Company doesn’t do nearly as much business. But it is certainly working hard to earn a good name for Grenada’s brown gold, and Belmont Estate is a big part of the picture.

The dark stuff: it tastes great – and it’s good for you

Unlike milk chocolate, which contains a small amount of cocoa mixed with other ingredients, dark chocolate usually contains upwards of 60 per cent cocoa solids. Milk chocolate is soft and melts easily but dark chocolate is firm and breaks with a snap. The taste is different, too. Milk chocolate is creamy and sweet, but dark chocolate is often almost bitter, and melts less smoothly on the tongue. Depending on the cocoa’s origin, the flavour can be fruity, smoky, mild or tangy.

Dark chocolate may also have health benefits. “Cocoa beans contain a large number of phytochemicals,” says the International Cocoa Organisation on its website www.icco.org. “These are physiologically active compounds found in plants, for example grapes, apple, tea, fruits, vegetables, etc. One group of these compounds is called flavonoids. There is a growing body of evidence about the health benefits of cocoa flavonoids.

“They are powerful anti-oxidants and are believed to help the body’s cells resist damage by free radicals, which are formed by numerous processes including when the body’s cells utilise oxygen for energy. Laboratory and human studies have indicated that cocoa flavonoids can inhibit the oxidation of the low-density lipoprotein (LDL-cholesterol) associated with heart disease. There is also emerging evidence which suggests that cocoa and chocolate may be able to contribute to reducing the risk of certain types of cancer.”

So eat up, to your heart’s delight.

Belmont estate is open year-round unless specified, from Sunday – Friday.