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Sao Tome's heirloom chocolates

The historic taste that will spoil your enjoyment of ordinary chocolates

SAO TOME — Anyone for a delicious chocolate ginger bomb? Be warned: You will not want to eat mass-produced chocolate again after tasting Claudio Corallo’s heirloom chocolate creations.

From a small factory on the tiny West African island of Sao Tome, from rare beans with a distinguished history grown on a plantation on the even tinier island of Principe, Corallo makes chocolate that delivers the long-lost flavor of true cacao.

His secret? A passion bordering on obsession in the quest for perfect beans and pure chocolate, unadulterated by added flavorings or processes.

Corallo believes that noble chocolate, like wine and olive oil, starts with terroir, with the sun, the rain and the land. In this case, the volcanic soils of Principe, just north of the equator, in the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa.

It was here that cacao arrived for the first time in Africa from its birthplace, Latin America, in 1819. The Portuguese hurriedly brought shiploads of plants before their cacao-rich colony of Brazil declared independence in 1822, according to Timothy Walker, assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, who provided Corallo with a copy of an 1821 letter describing the movement of the chocolate plants that he found in the museum of the navy in Lisbon. Cacao grew well on the islands — aided by slave and indentured labour. By the 1900s, Sao Tome was the world’s largest cacao producer.

By the 1930, however, its inefficient production declined against mainland Africa’s. When Sao Tome gained independence in 1975, the colonial plantations were abandoned. Annual cacao plummeted from 19,000 tons in 1920 to 4,500 in 1983 and 3,000 last year, according to a study by the Food and Agricultural Organization.

Ten years ago, in a plantation overrun by the forest in Principe, Corallo found the descendants of the original cacao plants, Forastero amelonado, brought by the Portuguese. A precious find — for in the last 50 years, across the world, hybrids, that produce high yields but have less  flavor, have replaced the old cacao varieties that have lower yields but intense aroma.

Corallo acquired the plantation, Terreiro Velho, and put in years of hard work to clear the rainforest ground, replant shade trees and seed the old plants. The reward is the production of the unique cacao beans.

The second secret

A rarity among chocolatiers, Corallo controls — meticulously — every step of the bean-to-bar process: from tending the plants to finding the perfect fermenting time and roasting temperature, from bean sorting by hand to creating a crystallized ginger bomb covered with 100 percent cacao paste that explodes in fireworks of flavors in your mouth, then vanishes leaving a clean taste.