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Annual chocolate affair to die for!

Anyone who knows me well enough, would be aware I love chocolate –– dark chocolate, to be exact. For me, there’s no greater pleasure than savouring its bittersweet richness. And, when a Grenadian colleague introduced me to the locally made organic delight two years ago, I was hooked immediately.

So, when I heard the Spice Isle was hosting its annual chocolate festival this month, I was determined to attend.

But far from being a personal indulgence, it was also an ideal opportunity to learn the history and evolution of cocoa from a mainly agriculture crop to an agro-tourism venture in the Spice Isle. Over the past 12 years, cocoa has succeeded nutmeg as the island’s main export crop, after the latter was wiped out by Hurricane Ivan.

The week-long festival was organized by True Blue Bay Resort, in collaboration with the Grenada Tourism Authority, hosting chocolatiers, journalists and bloggers from the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, Britain and the United States.

Anyone who thinks this chocolate festival was only about eating chocolate is sadly mistaken. Festival founder Magdalena Fielden told me it offers the visitor a full Grenadian experience, learning about the journey of the cocoa crop from bean to a chocolate bar, as well as getting a taste of the island.

Magdalena Fielden, founder of the Grenada Chocolate Festival.

Magdalena Fielden, founder of the Grenada Chocolate Festival.

“When I started the festival, I really started because I was looking for something for my guests to do in the hotel. It was around Christmas; we do the Twelve Days Of Christmas . . . .

“I started looking at what chocolate festivals were all about. And mainly they were about eating chocolate, maybe a little bit of workshops, maybe some people telling you where it came from. But I mean, how many people have seen a cocoa pod or seen cocoa grow in the field?” remarked Fielden, who is also owner and marketing director of True Blue Bay Resort.

The festival opened at the resort with a Friday night party attended by Governor General Dame Cécile La Grenade General and the ministers of agriculture, tourism and implementation, as well as other dignitaries. Patrons were treated to local chocolate infused cuisine, as well as the island’s traditional cocoa tea and chocolate beer and rum.

It got off to a proper start on Saturday morning with a chocolate-themed yoga session. We were then schooled on the health benefits of dark chocolate by director of Mexico City’s MUCHO Chocolate Museum, Ana Rita Garcia Lascurain, who also demonstrated how to incorporate organic dark chocolate into our beauty regime.

Later in the day, we joined the Grenada Hash House Harriers for their weekly hike –– this one dubbed the Cocoa Hash in honour of the festival. It was about a 90-minute drive from True Blue Resort in the south to Balthazar in the east for the start of the hike.

Dancing the cocoa: a worker at Belmont Estate demonstrating the traditional method of polishing cocoa beans.

Dancing the cocoa: a worker at Belmont Estate demonstrating the traditional method of polishing cocoa beans.

It was my first time going on a hash; and one woman explained that it was basically “running and drinking rum”. What she forgot to add was that it was a two-hour trek through the lush rainforest with breathtaking views of parts of the island at the summit. The trail was muddy from the previous night’s rains, and to the uninitiated it was an exercise in endurance. I fell several times along the way, but it was well worth it. The hash, by the way, is quite popular among locals and visitors.

After a much welcome day of relaxation on Sunday, our journey through the cocoa industry began, first, with a visit to the historic Belmont Estate, the 17-century cocoa plantation, where we were greeted by the aroma of fermenting cocoa. There we received a masterclass on the cultivation of and harvesting of cocoa from food technologist at the Cocoa Research Centre of the UWI, St Augustine Campus, Dr Darin Sukha.

Belmont is also the largest producer of organic cocoa on the island, representing part of a co-op of farmers who produce organic cocoa for the Grenada Chocolate Company, located a short distance away.

The Grenada Chocolate Company, founded in 1999, pioneered the manufacturing of organic dark chocolate on the island. Currently it produces approximately 234,000 bars a year to supply the local market, the Caribbean, Holland, Britain and the United States.

The Diamond Estate Chocolate Factory also opened its doors to us for a tour of its production plant. The factory began operations two years ago, and is a partnership between local cocoa farmers and the American chocolate maker L.A. Burdick. The farmers own a 70 per cent stake in the company, while Burdick holds the remaining 30.

Diamond Estate produces between 500 and 3,600 pounds of the confectionery a week, supplying the local market, as well as other Caribbean Islands and L.A. Burdick in the United States.

But it wasn’t just about sampling products from the chocolatiers present, cooking with chocolate and learning how chocolate is made. We got an opportunity to be a farmer for a day and get a glimpse into a day in the life of a cocoa farmer, thanks to Crayfish Bay Organic Estate. We got our hands dirty picking the cocoa pods, harvesting the beans and preparing them to be processed.

It is hard work indeed; and I must confess I only made it as far as helping to pick the pods. I now have a renewed respect for farmers.

The farm is run by husband and wife Kim and Lylette Russell, who manufacture cocoa products, including balls, powder and cocoa nibs. They only started producing chocolate within the last six weeks.

The festival also included an educational session for students, as according to Fielden, it is important to get them interested in the industry very early, given the aging population of farmers.

In addition to hosting the festival, Fielden opened the House Of Chocolate in the capital St George’s in January this year next to the National Museum to promote the cocoa industry year-round. So far it has been a hit with both locals and tourists.

The House Of Chocolate offers a year-round chocolate experience.

The House Of Chocolate offers a year-round chocolate experience.

“. . . Because I thought we do this [the chocolate festival] once a year and everybody forgets about it. So we have something there that is year-round, and it may bring a little bit more attention.”

As the festival grows in popularity, Fielden is hoping the government shows more support for the venture.

“I’m going to invite the prime minister for a private viewing of the House Of Chocolate because he hasn’t been there –– and the governor general too.

“And maybe I’ll invite a couple people to come with him and see how we get something there. Because . . . I mean, the cocoa is planted, it is there, it’s just to organize the people. You know, motivate them; try to get a better price for our cocoa too. It’s one of the best in the world.”

Now into its third year, the festival has secured its place on Grenada’s calendar of events, and Fielden is confident it will continue to grow.

“I know more and more people are attracted to it. I get more inquiries now. People come through the year and want to know more about it,” she said.

With the growing taste for the treat in the Caribbean, and with more tourists seeking a deeper experience beyond sun, sea and sand, one can expect the festival will continue to grow.

A full welcome to Grenada via its cocoa fields! I could not have asked for a better introduction.

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