Updated on March 14th, 2023
Who doesn’t love chocolate? On my recent trip to St Lucia, I was thrilled to hear that the British chocolate maker Hotel Chocolat had an estate there. Not only that but you can take a tour of the plantation, learn all about making our favourite confectionary and even create your very own chocolate bar. For me, that was an opportunity too good to miss! So, here I share everything you need to know before taking your own St Lucia Chocolate Tour.”
Project Chocolat, Rabot Estate, Soufriere, St Lucia
I spent a month discovering the beautiful island of St Lucia, which gave me plenty of time to uncover the best activities.
One that was hard to resist was the chance to learn more about the production of chocolate and have the opportunity to make my own. I had read great things about the experience of taking a tour around the plantation owned by the British chocolate brand Hotel Chocolat. I decided that I needed to add this tempting St Lucia chocolate tour to my itinerary.
During my time on the island, I took my life into my hands while driving to discover the best beaches in St Lucia. In addition, I had the frightening experience of being broken into and have written all about the experience here, including sharing my top tips for hotel safety. This is one post not to miss reading.
And don’t miss my rundown of over 30 Epic Activities to add to your itinerary in St Lucia.
The last time I took a chocolate-making class was in a small family-run business in Mindo, Ecuador. However, with the polished brand that is Hotel Chocolat behind it, I knew this was going to be a very different experience.
Chocolate is happiness that you can eat.”
– Ursula Kohaupt
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Hotel Chocolat opened its first shop in London back in 2004 with a mission to make chocolate exciting again. Since then, they have accumulated over 126 stores worldwide, along with cafes and restaurants.
The West Indies used to be a large cocoa-growing region but since then bananas and tourism have flourished and cocoa production has taken a back seat. However, the beans produced in the area have always been of high quality, a key factor embedded in the brand of Hotel Chocolat.
Over the years the industry has changed a lot. In the past, chocolate producers would also own estates and grow their own beans. However now, this is rare and growers generally produce the beans and supply them to the factories that make the end product.
The owners of Hotel Chocolat decided to change that. After a long search, they found the Rabot Estate near Soufriere in St Lucia. In 2006 they took over the 140-acre estate, bucking the trend of most other chocolate producers by growing their own cocoa.
Since then, the estate has gone from strength to strength. There is now a high-end hotel (Rabot Hotel from Hotel Chocolat) and a restaurant where you can enjoy a three-course meal, all made using elements of cocoa. I spoke to a few people who ate there and said it was an interesting and totally delicious experience.
The estate has now added Project Chocolat to its portfolio which gives us chocolate lovers the opportunity to learn more about the origins of our favourite confectionery, follow its journey from the tree to the bean and then even make our own personal chocolate bar to take home. And who can resist the opportunity to do that?
If chocolate is the answer….the question is irrelevant.”
– Kim Knott
If you are planning to take the same tour, then why not treat yourself to a night or two at the luxurious Rabot Hotel from Hotel Chocolat? Alternatively, there are plenty of choices around Soufriere. For luxury with spectacular views of the Pitons on Sugar Beach, there is the Viceroy Resort or part way between this and the main road to Project Chocolat is Stonefield Estate Resort. However, if you are looking for something in a more budget price range, with self-catering facilities, then I enjoyed my stay at both Frenz and Diamondview apartments. All are within a 10-minute drive from the estate. Or check out the other options using the box below:
Project Chocolat offers two options on a tour of the Rabot Estate. For hotel guests, the first part of the St Lucia chocolate tour (learning how cocoa is grown and processed) is offered complimentary. Guests can also upgrade to include the chocolate making for a discounted price.
For those of us who are not hotel guests, you can choose to do the full Tree to Bar experience which takes around 2 ½ hours. It includes the plantation tour and making your own bar, as well as lunch in the Cacao Cuisine restaurant.
For the Bean to Bar allow 1 hour. This excludes the plantation tour and goes straight to the chocolate making.
For current prices and if you are interested in booking the tour then check out all the details below.
Unfortunately for my St Lucia chocolate tour, the weather was not my friend and we had some heavy rain showers throughout. I am pleased to report that we were provided with umbrellas for the duration. Bear in mind that for the plantation tour it can get muddy so make sure you wear appropriate footwear, especially if it has been raining heavily.
Here are a few of the things I learned on my St Lucia chocolate tour
Why St Lucia?
Cocoa plants only grow in tropical regions 20° either side of the equator. In St Lucia, the rich and fertile volcanic soil, high altitude (1000ft above sea level) and rainforest climate all create a unique environment, perfectly suited to cocoa production.
For the beans to flourish, they need regular rainfall and partial shade from sunshine. For this reason, the cacao is planted amongst other, taller trees such as palms, citrus trees or plantains. Banana and mango trees also add different flavours to the beans as they grow.
The first pods start to appear between 18 months and three years after the tree is planted. Trees can actively bear fruit for 50 years however on the Rabot estate there are some which are 80 years old and still producing crops.
When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.”
– Regina Brett
There are three types of cacao bean:
Forastero. This makes up approximately 90% of the world’s cacao production. It’s a hardy crop so is used widely across the chocolate-producing industry.
Criollo. This is rare, almost extinct, but it’s also the finest and most expensive of all the varieties of cacao.
Trinitario. This is a hybrid of the other two beans. it was developed in the 18th century in Trinidad when the two types of trees naturally crossed.
They have done some profiling of the trees at the Rabot estate and found that they are Criollo-rich Trinitario. This is an excellent blend producing high-quality cacao with lots of flavour.
Cacao or Cocoa?
Before I go any further I just wanted to clear up something which confused me. What is the difference between cacao and cocoa? After a little research, I discovered that cacao is the Spanish word for chcahuatl, which is what Aztecs called the beans. Incidentally, they also believed that chocolate was a gift from the gods! It’s thought that English traders misspelt cacao when they brought the beans home, and so cocoa stuck.
So being English, from here on in I will misspell it too, in line with my ancestors 😉
There was a lot to learn in the Seeding Nursery where we saw numerous small seedlings being nurtured prior to planting. One of the highlights of the St Lucia chocolate tour was getting the chance to graft my own plant. As already mentioned, a cocoa plant can take up to 3 years before it produces any pods. To speed up the process and make the trees hardier, the estate grafts the younger stems onto established rooted plants. It was as simple as cutting the end of the stem and wrapping plastic tape around to bind the two together (under strict guidance obviously!).
There was something very satisfying about leaving my new baby tree behind. Apparently, I can go back and check on the progress of my Sue Where Why What creation to find out where it was eventually planted and how it is doing. A much more sustainable way of leaving my mark than the words I scrawled on the graffiti boards later!
There is nothing better than a friend unless it is a friend with chocolate.”
– Linda Grayson
While in the Seederie, we also learned more about how the beans are harvested and the care they need before they are ready to be made into a bar. For example:
Harvesting occurs two times per year between October and December and May and July but the trees bare fruit all year round. The beans lie in a rich white pulp which you can eat. It is sticky and sweet but tastes nothing like the chocolate that we know and love. At this stage neither does the bean so if you try the pulp, definitely don’t eat that!
Next comes fermentation when the beans are piled up in wooden boxes or on plantain leaves and covered. They are left to ferment here for 5 to 7 days which produces a chemical change. This change is essential for developing flavour and aroma and is, therefore, one of the most important steps in the whole process.
The length of the fermentation is a thing of great experiment to make sure that the beans are used to produce chocolate when they are at their best.
After the fermentation comes drying. The beans are placed out in the sun for as long as two weeks. This stops the fermentation process and helps develop the flavours. In ideal conditions, the cocoa is left to dry naturally in the sunshine whilst protecting it from the regular tropical downpours.
Then comes roasting where the beans are placed in ovens at temperatures of around 150°C. Again, this process is essential because if they’re roasted for the wrong time or at the wrong temperature the resulting chocolate can be very bitter.
Finally, the beans are shaken, vibrated and blown with air to separate the shell from the all-important cocoa nibs. It is the nibs at the heart of the bean which then go on to be ground to create chocolate.
So, as you can see there was a lot to learn about the love, care and science which goes into producing the perfect bean. I was certainly starting to have a whole new appreciation for my favourite sweet treat. And that was before I learned how hard it was to make my own bar!
All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
– Charles M. Schulz
The next part of my St Lucia chocolate tour was to make my own chocolate bar. Sounds easy, right? I can vouch for the fact that it was hard work!
We all had a separate workstation set up for us which included a super-hot, pre-heated mortar (do not touch!). In addition, we had three jars containing cocoa nibs, cocoa butter, icing sugar and a paper napkin. Our first job was pounding the nibs. While we got busy, our guide shared some interesting facts about the history of chocolate while encouraging us to work hard on the job at hand. When I thought I was doing really well to create a powder, we were informed that we had to go beyond the powder and keep pounding and grinding until we had a paste. The finer you can grind it, the less gritty it will be.
Finally, after at least 20 minutes of hard work, I saw a paste appearing in my pestle and mortar. It felt like a triumph!
Our next job was to add the cocoa butter and start the pounding and mixing again! The heat of the mortar helps to melt the solid butter quicker and the result after lots more arm action is a liquid consistency. Cocoa butter is a unique vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature but melts at exactly mouth temperature. I also learned that white chocolate actually doesn’t contain any chocolate at all and is purely a blend of cocoa butter and sugar.
The final part of the process was to add the sugar. The aim is to get your resulting chocolate as smooth and non-gritty as possible (hence ALL the pounding, grinding and stirring!). Icing sugar is used as the finer texture aids the process. The mantra of Hotel Chocolat is “More Cocoa, Less Sugar” so we were encouraged to add as little sugar as possible for our taste.
I kept tasting mine and I have to admit I ended up using all the sugar!
In real chocolate production, they crush the nibs between a series of metal rollers and the paste produced is called cocoa mass or liquor. It then goes through a process where the mixture is kneaded and gently heated to get the correct texture and develop flavour. This can happen anywhere between 12 and 72 hours. In general, the longer the time, the smoother the resulting chocolate will be.
So, no matter how much hard work my arm was doing, it was never going to come close to the real thing!
Finally, I poured the fruits of all my labour into a mould, put my name on it and handed it over to be chilled.
If you haven’t opted for a slap-up three-course lunch at the restaurant but all this chocolate has made you peckish, then have no fear. While you wait for your finished product, there is plenty on offer for you to sample in the street food market. If you have opted for the Tree to Bar experience then lunch here will be included in your package. For example, how do a Cacao Burger or Cacao Fish and chips sound? There are healthier options, desserts, ice creams and coffees available, all with a little cocoa twist!
A balanced diet is chocolate in both hands.”
If you prefer a liquid lunch then there are plenty of cocktails to choose from at the bar including a cacao gin and tonic, beer or if you want a break from chocolate then they have just plain wine too.
To satisfy the shopaholics, in the store, there are plenty of branded products, homewares, toiletries and of course chocolate itself to choose from. Trust me, you will be spoiled for choice if you like souvenir shopping!
To book your own experience or other popular activities in St Lucia, use the links below for all the details:
The finished product
Eventually, my chocolate was ready. All wrapped up in a little bag with my name on it. As far as I was concerned, it was small but perfectly formed and I held it with pride as I ran back to my car in the rain!
In terms of the St Lucia chocolate tour, it was a fantastic insight into all the effort it takes to make a bar of chocolate. I learned a lot and have changed what I look for in a chocolate treat as a result. Making my own chocolate bar was a highlight, although much harder work than I was expecting! Overall, however, I felt the tour was expensive and much more than I would normally pay for an activity, even by St Lucia standards.
I did a similar tour in Grenada around the Belmont Estate for EC$16 which is around US$5. It was a very different experience and not as polished. I did not make my own bar then either. Project Chocolat, like everything from Hotel Chocolat is stylish and high-end. The hotel, the restaurant, the experience and the chocolate are no different. If that is what you enjoy then I have no doubt that you will love it!
And my chocolate? Fabulous, obviously! Although it was a little grainy…if only I’d worked a little bit harder 😉 Although I have to say, I have never felt more appreciation for a mouthful of sweetness before in my life. I only wish it lasted a little bit longer…
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