Mmm…chocolate. It melts in your mouth and lingers on your taste buds, reminding you that sometimes, the best things in life are foods.
Did you know that chocolate and the Caribbean have a long history together? The first civilizations to cultivate and consume chocolate lived in Central America. The Olmecs, Mayans and the Aztecs all cultivated the cacao tree and used the beans to make a dark, bitter drink.
This crop was extremely important to the people of ancient Mesoamerica. The Aztecs even used cacao beans as currency. With 3 of them, you could buy an egg, while 100 beans was the price of a slave. Or, according to the House of Chocolate Museum in Grenada, you could buy a string of jade beads for 180,000 beans.
The Mayans, for their part, believed that the tiny pods came from the gods. They sometimes included them in carvings and in temples as a symbol of life and fertility.
For many years people believed that consuming cacao had many health benefits. They used it as an aphrodisiac and to gain strength. For this reason it became a favorite among warriors.
A not-so-delicious history
Nevertheless, cacao wasn’t always consumed in the form of a tasty bar of chocolate. Today, additives like sugar and nuts give the beans the sweet flavor that we love. But back in ancient times, the custom was to consume it close to its natural form. Sometimes it was mixed with spices or even corn puree to make it less bitter.
The Aztecs and Mayans, may have been used to the taste, but we know for a fact that Europeans were not. In fact, Christopher Columbus reportedly tried a cacao drink while on a trip to the New World, and didn’t enjoy it all. We suppose it must have been an acquired taste.
“Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country.”-José de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit missionary who traveled to Peru and Mexico in the 16th century
Europeans “discover” chocolate
Shortly after Christopher Columbus decided cacao beverages weren’t his cup of tea, an Aztec emperor named Montezuma II presented Spanish explorer Hernán Cortes with an entire cacao plantation. Interestingly, he only did this because he thought Cortes was the reincarnation of the late King Quetzalcoatl.
To make a long story short, Cortes became very greedy once he realized the value of cacao beans. Since he wasn’t able to find the gold he was looking for in the Americas, he decided to plant more cacao all over Mexico and the Caribbean to produce them for Europeans, who sweetened them with sugar, spices and other ingredients to suit their taste buds.
Little by little, Europeans began to drink chocolate in amounts comparable to their consumption of tea or coffee. Chocolate houses were opened in Spain, and then in England, in the 1600s. Next, the House of Fry in England made the first solid chocolate block in 1847. However, the first chocolate bars didn’t make an appearance until chocolatiers created them in Belgium around 1920.
Caribbean chocolate today
Today, cacao plantations in the Caribbean still produce a large amount of chocolate for chocolate lovers around the world. Some of the world’s tastiest bean-to-bar chocolates are made in the Caribbean.
However, although the Caribbean and Central America were once the top exporters of these beans, Africa now produces the cacao used for most of the world’s chocolate. This is because the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean caused cacao plantations to lose the majority of their workforce. Subsequently, the cacao trade became less profitable. In addition, the Dutch brought the cacao tree to India. From there it spread to Asia and then Africa. Today many countries export cacao.
Nevertheless, even though the Caribbean may not be a top cacao exporter today, Caribbean countries produce unique, exotic flavors that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. That’s why you had better make sure you try some locally made chocolate on your next vacation to the Caribbean!
In fact, the International Cocoa Council has handed out certifications to many Caribbean countries for producing fine cacao. According to Caribbean Agribusiness, only 5% of the cacao produced in the entire world is fine or flavored. Furthermore, 80% of that that 5% comes from the Caribbean and Latin America! The following countries have been named exclusive producers of fine cacao:
- St. Lucia
- St. Vincent and the Grenadines
- Trinidad and Tobago
This is an incredibly high honor due to the fact that only 17 countries in the world have been named exclusive producers of fine cacao.
Buying chocolate in the Caribbean
The next time you’re in the Caribbean, make sure you stock up on some of the world’s best chocolate! There are also many places where you can witness chocolate being made, from bean to bar. Or, in some places you can taste the bitter Aztec chocolate drink as it was consumed thousands of years ago.
Barbados: Agapey Chocolate Factory Tours and Shop
Located in Bridgetown, the Agapey Chocolate Factory Tours and Shop invites you to learn about the entire chocolate making process. In addition, you can get delicious chocolate for a reasonable price!
Trinidad and Tobago: Cocobel Chocolate
This factory sells delicious bonbons and other treats made from local chocolate. A true chocolate lover’s paradise.
Grenada: Diamond Chocolate Factory
Also known as Jouvay Chocolate, this factor offers a visitors a glimpse of the rustic chocolate making operation. The pure chocolate they sell there is some of the best in Grenada.
Punta Gorda, Belize: Maya House of Cacao
At the Maya House of Cacao, you can learn about the cacao bean’s significance in Mayan culture and experience the chocolate-making process hands-on.
Ready to pack your bags and head to the Caribbean for some delicious chocolate? Find your perfect private villa here.
Main image source: Caribbean Coffee House