Sao Tome and Principe, once the world’s largest chocolate producer, is revitalizing its chocolate trade
I spent less than half an hour at Claudio Corallo’s chocolate factory in São Tomé and Principe’s sweltering capital before realizing everything I knew about chocolate was wrong.
The 72-year-old Italian walks me through a series of his creations, delicately carving bars of chocolate onto a board, waiting for me to taste each one. As I put them on my tongue, he watched me, head tilted slightly to one side, eyes blinking through glasses, waiting for the reaction he knew was coming.
His 100% Cacao is strong, but not bitter, and the more I roll it in my mouth, the more mellow it becomes. “Intense and bitter are not the same thing,” he said. “We’re taught that good chocolate is dark and bitter, but bitterness is wrong and dark is burnt.”
Among the range of blends I’ve tried is Ubric 1, a 70% chocolate containing raisins distilled with cocoa pulp, a white, sticky fruit that Corallo describes as having “the freshest, The most exciting aroma”. I have never tasted anything like it. Not surprisingly, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera called him one of the “best chocolatiers in the world”.
Cacao is a living product that wants to be recognized and treated rightly
The trees growing on the Corallo plantation are descendants of the first cacao trees in the country. Until the early 1800s, cacao was grown only in Latin America. But King João VI of Portugal, aware that he was about to lose the Brazilian colony, and fearing a loss of income for his court from Brazil’s cocoa industry, ordered the trees to be shipped to Portugal’s safer colony of Sao Tome and Príncipe.
They arrived in Principe in 1819, and soon slaves from West Africa, as well as indentured laborers from other Portuguese colonies (notably Cape Verde, Angola, and Mozambique), worked the plantations that sprang up. The trees thrived in the fertile volcanic soil, and by the early 1900s, São Tomé and Principe was the world’s largest exporter of cocoa, earning it the nickname the “Chocolate Islands.”
Known as “roças,” these plantations are like self-sufficient towns, with workers’ quarters and their own churches, hospitals and schools. However, the living conditions of these indentured laborers were so harsh and the landlords treated them so cruelly that by 1910, chocolate manufacturers in Britain and Germany boycotted “Portuguese cocoa”, and the local industry began to decline. Completely abandoned after Sao Tome and Principe gained independence from Portugal in 1975, the roca are now in varying states of decay, their concrete skeletons slowly being eaten away by the jungle.
In Roça Sundy, once the second largest plantation in Príncipe, the roots of the kapok trees climb down the walls of the open warehouses. In an old storage room, I found a battered hand dryer, a relic from the days when fermenting cocoa hives were dried on top of huge wood-burning stoves. The jagged facade of a medieval stables lined one side of the Roca’s central courtyard, and the weather-beaten clock stood at seven-thirty. Several sections of sunken railroad tracks cross the Rossa River and the ruins of an abandoned hospital.
Hilly forests are now covered with a diverse canopy. Bananas provide shade for young cacao; coconut palms and flame-coloured coral trees provide an upper layer of protection for older, pod-forming cacao trees. Breadfruit trees dot the area, and their fruit drops serve as compost for the soil.
Lina Martins, the manager of the chocolate factory, guides me through the selection, which includes 60%, 70% and 80% cacao, as well as tied bags of cocoa nibs, small pieces of roasted cocoa beans. Despite the high proportions, the 80% chocolate bar has a delicate floral aroma, while the cocoa nibs offer a rich, earthy nuttiness.
Cocoa is like wine. Tastes better if you take a break between stages
Martins produces just 150kg of each percentage every six weeks and waits up to six months after the beans have fermented before roasting them. “Cocoa is like wine,” she said. “It tastes better if you take a break between stages.”
But it’s good chocolate in many ways. “Cultivating rainforest-grown cocoa into chocolate and other cocoa products is one of the initiatives that aligns with our vision of sustainable social and economic development in Principe,” said Emma Tuzinkiewicz, Director of Sustainability at HBD. in the rich natural environment of the island.”
HBD employs more than 500 people in Principe and builds new homes in Terra Prometida. By growing the cocoa under the rainforest canopy, they also strive to maintain the biodiversity of the plantation. “We know that our chocolate tastes as good as how we treat the planet,” Tuzinkevich said. “And it tastes really good.”