Exploring one micro-entrepreneur’s journey to bring the bounty home to the village.
If people know of Saint Lucia, it’s a fairly safe bet to say they think of luxury resorts and exotic honeymoons. However, there is so much more to this tiny island-nation than instagrammable images of 5-star resorts, infinity pools and views of the twin volcanic peaks, the Pitons.
Saint Lucia, the world’s only country named after a woman, is tiny by any standards. A teardrop-shaped dot of lush green, just 27 miles long and 14 miles at her widest point, is home to a small-town sized handful of 170,000 inhabitants. This diminutive island now welcomes well over a million visitors every year, and the tourism industry has become hugely important to Saint Lucia. Dominated primarily by all-inclusives and big, often foreign-owned hotels, the industry is often criticized for not benefiting the island by much other than low-paying service jobs. But recent years have seen a growing number of local micro-entrepreneurs, who despite the odds, are rapidly changing the face of Saint Lucia’s tourism industry.
Maria Jackson and Cacoa Sainte Lucie
One such entrepreneur is Maria Jackson, Saint Lucia’s first female chocolatier, crafting delicious gourmet chocolate from the island’s coveted cocoa beans.
The seeds of the cocoa tree are the raw material for all chocolate and this tree thrives in Saint Lucia’s rich volcanic soil. Many connoisseurs rate Saint Lucia’s chocolate as the best, with flavours subtly varying depending on what part of the island the cocoa is grown. Valley cocoa from the south will taste distinctly different to that grown in the mountain rainforests. “The flavour from the cocoa beans that Saint Lucia has, has a lot to do with what our chocolate tastes like. The majority of ours is Trinitario beans with a small percentage of Criollo. A big part of the flavour is where it’s grown, the rainfall, the time of harvest, the crops that are grown around the trees – all of this affects the flavour of the bean. Also, the type of soil which is the main reason why Saint Lucia’s cocoa beans are so flavorful, our volcanic soils,” explains Jackson.
Jackson fell in love with the chocolate-making process while a pastry-chef at one of the island’s top resorts that produced in-house gourmet chocolate. Though never formally trained to make the chocolate, she was undeterred. Jackson observed all that she could while at the resort and researched everything else needed to fulfill her dream of creating a gourmet chocolate business in her home community of Belvedere, Canaries. In May 2015, Jackson started Cacoa Sainte Lucie.
At their public launch in 2016, Cacoa Sainte Lucie wowed the local market. For the first time, Saint Lucians were experiencing not just local chocolate, but locally made, gourmet dark chocolate. With her product range consisting entirely of high-percentage dark chocolates, Jackson was not sure how the local market would receive her product. When we visited her in March, roughly four years after her launch, she recounted that she is continuously encouraged by the number of repeat local customers whose support she credits with being a big part of what keeps her going. “I’d like to express my gratitude to the Saint Lucian market as a whole. My perception of the market was that they wouldn’t be receptive to the product at all. But they have been very supportive, they spread knowledge about us by word of mouth, they buy to send and take overseas to family and friends and post it on social media. They meet me in the street and tell me they bought it and that means a lot to me,” says Jackson.
Cacoa Sainte Lucie now produces 60 and 70 percent gourmet dark chocolate which uses only natural, organically-grown Saint Lucian cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar. To this, they have added local spices to create flavour variations. In response to numerous requests for higher percentages of cocoa, they are working on an 88 percent chocolate product. This one has been extra challenging as Jackson explains, at 80 percent and above, it is tricky to create a palatable blend. Cacoa Sainte Lucie also produces a milk chocolate and what has become one of their hottest sellers – dark chocolate covered almonds. Customers can also indulge in the purest, least processed form, cocoa nibs. These are the roasted, cracked cocoa beans – no additives – stacked full of antioxidants and all the ‘food of the Gods’ that cocoa has to offer. Two newer items include a box of chocolate truffles with caramels and various ganache fillings, and a pre-mixed cocoa tea powder so anyone can enjoy the rich goodness of Lucian cocoa tea with ease.
Watching Jackson, who just turned 29 in March as she runs through her chocolate tour, radiate with happiness as she shares her love of chocolate with her guests, one can tell this is personal. The day I first went, one visitor, Jenny from Calgary, was hesitant to taste the dark chocolate samples as she declared herself “not a fan.” It was one of those moments you wish you were recording as her face transformed from reluctance to astonished joy. She declared the chocolate unbelievable, smooth and delicious and that she finally understood what the fuss was about.
Lucian ‘Cocoa Tea’
Cocoa trees were brought to the island by the British in the 1600s from Central America and cocoa has long been a part of Saint Lucia’s traditional foods in the form of rich, hot cups of thick cocoa tea drank as a pre-dawn breakfast.
Cocoa tea, in its traditional form, starts with the cocoa stick made from minimally processed roasted cocoa beans, hand-rolled into little logs of pure cocoa. This is melted into simmering water along with the chosen spices which may include West Indian bay leaf (pimenta racemosa), fresh ground nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves or anise. To this, tiny dumplings of flour are added and the mixture is thickened in modern homes with cornstarch, but arrowroot starch, toloma in creole, is a local alternative. Once the whole ‘tea’ has simmered sufficiently to cook the dumplings and release the goodness of the cocoa and the aromas and flavours of added spices, evaporated milk and heaped spoons of sugar would be added to complete the breakfast.
These days, you can order cocoa tea from many roadside and hotel restaurants around the island and you will often find options to suit a more modern diet; non-dairy milks, black, unsweetened are all options that can be found with a little perseverance. Of course, you can buy cocoa sticks in all supermarkets and make your cocoa tea exactly to your preference. Alternatively, very soon buy, what in our opinion is the best cocoa tea, produced by Cacoa Sainte Lucie. We tested their mix and found it delicious as a ‘black’ cocoa tea with nothing at all added and equally fine as served in Cacoa Sainte Lucie’s chocolate tour with fresh coconut milk.
Bringing the Benefits of the Tourist $$ Home
Belvedere is a small community on a mountain ridge above the tiny village of Canaries about half way down Saint Lucia’s picturesque west coast. The drive there is a stunning experience in and of itself as the roads wind along following the steep hills of the dramatic coastline, with the intense blue Caribbean sea glittering in the sun. In the villages along the way, you glimpse “the other side of paradise,” where villagers eke out their existence, largely unable to tap into the prosperity of tourism or of the wealthier north of the island. It can be difficult to imagine in a place so small, that a disparity such as this can exist, but it does.
It is as a direct counterpoint to this that Jackson is determined to keep her business in its rural location, working entirely with local farmers and staff. She works with about 15 farmers on local small-holdings, some of whom have barely a handful of trees, others with full estates. She teaches them all she knows about what she needs in a bean while learning from them what challenges they face in growing and processing the beans to bring out the flavours and maintain quality. Together they figure out how to build partnerships that will bring prosperity home.
“The cocoa beans that we use for our production come from a number of farmers, we try to give them a good price for their cocoa and they tell us they’re excited that the cocoa is not exported, but is going into a local products,” says Jackson. “They like that the cocoa is used in Saint Lucia to make a luxury chocolate – that Canaries is producing something so unique. And I’m very grateful to them as well, they have worked with us from day one. They have taken on the challenges of changing how they farm and process the beans so that we get the quality we need. Without them, this small venture would not have been possible.”
Cacoa Sainte Lucie now supplies several higher-end retailers on the island and small amounts are exported to neighbouring islands Martinique and St Vincent, but the focus is on expanding in the local market first.
Bespoke chocolates are supplied to a few exclusive villa’s for their turn-down services and Jackson works with Awesome Caribbean Weddings to fulfill chocolate-loving brides’ and grooms’ dream weddings with products ranging from wedding favors to the actual cake. Even vegan chocolate wedding cake is a possibility!
Producing up to 200 bars a day, the small production team in the lab, Jessica and Iyoka, smile as Jackson shares her dreams, planning to submit their products to competitions to gain internationally recognized stamps of approval and aiming by the end of 2019 to move to a new, bigger location within Canaries. Here they will be able to welcome larger groups and drop-ins, show more of the process and make much more chocolate, and even offer chocolate breakfast.
Currently, Cacoa Sainte Lucia accepts bookings for tours exclusively via Spice Travel and Tours or pre-booked by directly contacting the lab, but regret they can’t accommodate drop-ins.