Sweet deal

There was a reason why the Mayans and the Aztecs used chocolate in their ceremonies. They had a god for it.

Even today, tasting the glorious substance becomes a ritual—a momentary celebration while it works its magic, releasing serotonin in the brain.
The better the chocolate, the better the rush.

So it’s not surprising that the most intensely satisfying chocolate experience I’ve ever had came from the long-lost taste of heirloom cacao, made on São Tomé by master chocolatier Claudio Corallo.

Every afternoon, as the sun gets lower and coolness sets in, Corallo and his son Niccolo welcome visitors to their home, facing the glimmering bay of Ana Chaves, to taste their chocolate and understand their philosophy.

They make chocolate like Italians make wine or olive oil. Their produce comes from the volcanic soil on the island of Príncipe (with a population of 1 500), in the armpit of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea.

Cacao first arrived in Príncipe in 1819. The Portuguese brought it from its place of origin, Latin America, before the cacao-rich colony of Brazil declared independence in 1823.

By the 1900s São Tomé and Príncipe had become the world’s largest cacao producer. But that title was shortlived. After independence in 1975, the colonial plantations lay abandoned, over-run by forest.

Ten years ago, in a plantation in Príncipe, Corallo discovered the descendants of the old plants. While the world switched to hybrids of high productivity and low flavour, the old plants of low productivity but unique aroma survived in Príncipe, thanks to monkeys.

Attracted by the perfume, monkeys crack open the pods, suck on the beans and leave seeds in their droppings on the ground. The forest does the rest.

The Corallos control every step of the pod-to-bar process, with a degree of obsession, I should say, in the pursuit of the perfect cacao bean and the perfect chocolate. This is a family affair.

Claudio and Niccolo handle the production side on the islands. In Lisbon, the rest of the clan—wife Bettina, daughter Ricciarda and son Amedeo—manage a chocolate shop near the trendy Bairro Alto, as well as the rising exports to Europe, Japan and the United States.

The long journey of these cacao beans starts on a plantation on the slopes of lush Príncipe, about 170km from São Tomé. Beans are hand-picked and hand-selected, fermented, dried and roasted to keep their aroma alive.

Corallo has banned conching (mechanical stirring). ‘Conching deadens the flavour,” he says. ‘Modern chocolate-making removes flavours and makes it up with additives.”

Just check the ingredients of a supermarket chocolate and you will understand what he means. Corallo built the clay-tile drying platforms, the wooden fermentation boxes and the air filters in his laboratory. He distils a fiery aguardente from the usually discarded but juicy cacao pulp.

Raisins are soaked in this liqueur for three weeks and reappear in small squares of 80% cacao that are, well, orgasmic. These squares are the climax of the daily chocolate tasting.

You start with raw and roasted cacao beans, great for snacking, with a nutty taste, move on to a soft 70% cacao bar and escalate the flavour with the 100% pure cacao bar, which is dark and complex.

One chocolate has nibs of roasted cacao in it. In another, Sable, at 80%, tiny bits of crystallised sugar create a sandy texture.

The ‘fancy chocolates”, as Corallo calls them, are infused with ginger or orange peel. I thought I had died and been resurrected in chocolate heaven.

I attended a tasting every evening I was in São Tomé and returned to South Africa with 4kg of chocolate. I have been on a daily pleasure safari since. Breakfast now is bread, briefly warmed, which softens the chocolate.

After lunch, a piece of wafer-thin 70% cacao with nibs. At sunset, a ball of crystallised ginger covered in 100% cacao paste. Before snuggling into bed, a drop of aguardente.

One day my daughter Esmeralda tried a supermarket bonbon. She spat it right out. ‘I nearly vomited,” she said. ‘What a difference!”

Order at www.claudiocorallo.com

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