Restaurant tables are set with salt and pepper, but also a cocoa nib grinder. At the spa, massage oil options include cocoa-peppermint and cocoa-nutmeg-cinnamon. Just outside your window, baby cocoa pods cling to trees in shady groves. And above it all towers St. Lucia's magical, magnificent Pitons.
For a chocolate lover, this truly is paradise.
Boucan, a boutique hotel located in the southwest of this Caribbean island, is the culmination of all things cocoa. The property was created by a British chocolatier, after all (named, confusingly, Hotel Chocolat). But it is more than just a sugary showcase: It is part of the 56-hectare Rabot Estate, St. Lucia's oldest cocoa plantation, dating back to 1745. That, for chocolate freaks like me, is the sweetest thing.
I am here to learn how my favourite indulgence comes to be, how it goes from a knobbly pod on a tree to a silky masterpiece in my mouth. Best of all, I am here to make my own chocolate bar out of local beans.
My group's guide is Cuthbert Monroque, one of the agriculture managers. When Boucan first started offering Tree to Bar tours, they hired guides and had Monroque educate them. That was a waste, they soon realized. No one could ever top his enthusiasm.
"You got that, sis?" he asks while outlining the three varieties of cocoa grown on the plantation (Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero). "Sis" seems to be his favourite word. But it's not condescending. He talks about the plants as if they're his babies – he's just welcoming me into the family.
As we stand in the hot morning sun beside a grove of cocoa trees (some sprouting just small flowers, which will eventually grow into pods about 20 centimetres long), Monroque explains why St. Lucia is perfect for cocoa growingfor a number of reasons: the soil is volcanic, the country falls within 20 degrees of the equator (opening the small latitude window that is optimal for growth), a minimum two litres of rain fall each year and myriad other fruit trees provide much needed protection for the plants.
"We do natural growing – organic," he says. His homemade bug repellant: garlic, chives, baking soda, vinegar, liquid lemon soap, cayenne and scotch bonnet peppers are blended in water, with a bit of vegetable oil added before spraying. I'm tempted to try it at home.
Other growing practices – including seedling grafting – are best left on the island, although you can try your hand at the delicate process as part of the tour.
We skip ahead to the fun part: turning beans into a bar. I'm no stranger to chocolate-making (I've got tempering down pat), but usually I'm not starting with such raw ingredients: cocoa nibs, cocoa butter and powdered sugar. My only tool is a substantial mortar and pestle.
Monroque has us start by examining roasted cocoa beans, which have a wonderful nutty scent. To get to this point they have been harvested, fermented and dried. Crack the shells off and underneath are the nibs, with a bitter yet still satisfying flavour. Crush those and out comes the butter. It does not taste good.
The nibs go into the warm mortar and we start grinding. They begin to turn into liquid. We keep grinding. The smell is intoxicating, but this is seriously hard work. Next, we add the butter. It is this combination of nibs and butter that determines the percentage of cocoa solids in a bar. The darker the chocolate, the less butter. White chocolate contains no nibs at all.
Soon the mixture is thick and glossy. "That's liquid gold," Monroque says. In appearance, yes. But it tastes awful. Pure bitterness.
Time for the sugar. A few swirls of the pestle and we're ready to taste. "Take your spoon, sis," Monroque instructs. But just as I'm about to sample my concoction I look up at the woman across from me. Her face is decidedly puzzled, not pleased.
"It tastes … salty," she says. "Almost like baking powder …"
I lick my spoon. Blech.
Monroque jumps over to taste for himself. He shakes his head. "No, no. They've done it again." Seems the baking powder and the powdered sugar sit a little too close together in the kitchen. Oops.
But all is not lost. Monroque has enough chocolate prepared – with the sweet stuff – for us to still make our bars. He pours the precious liquid into a plastic piping bag and we take turns squeezing it into small moulds.
While we wait for our masterpieces to set, Monroque splits a fresh cocoa pod in half. The rows of beans, covered with a white slimy pulp, look a world away from what we've just worked with – almost alien, and quite unappetizing. But he gives us each one to suck on. The texture is similar to lychee, and the flavour shocks me. It is sweet and fruity. In that one small piece I taste many flavours of the island, including mango, guava and soursop. It makes sense. Cocoa is a fruit, after all.
My finished bar is not my best work – it's gritty, and missing that perfect snap. But I've been working with my favourite food for hours while gazing out over rain forest. The final result hardly matters.
"When your serotonin is high," Monroque says, "you feel like you're walking on sunshine."
IF YOU GO
Westjet and Air Canada fly direct from Toronto.
What to do
The Tree to Bar tour at Boucan is available Monday to Friday, starting at 9 a.m. Three hours; $45 (U.S.) for hotel guests, $65 for visitors.
Where to stay
Rooms at Boucan come in two styles: lodges and luxe lodges (which feature a deck with lounge chairs and views of the pitons). Both come with open-sky rain-forest showers and four-poster beds. Enjoy dinner at the restaurant (where every dish includes some form of cocoa) or unwind at the stunning infinity pool. From $450 (U.S.), including full breakfast. hotelchocolat.com
Not far is the revamped Sugar Beach, a Viceroy Resort, where each room features a private plunge pool. Matt Damon renewed his vows here, and Gwyneth Paltrow called it "heaven." From $385 (U.S). viceroyhotelsandresorts.com
The writer travelled courtesy of the St. Lucia Tourism Board. It did not review or approve this article.