Chocolate? In Grenada? Who knew. Among the abundance of tropical flora on the Caribbean’s ‘Spice Isle’, Jess Baldwin samples the unlikeliest of food festivals…
“Ladies and gentlemen, stand back”, he says in a theatrical manner with excitement ringing through every word. He double checks his amazing contraption before take-off. “If you have sensitive hearing, I suggest you find a place to hide at a distance,” he warns. And with that we have lift-off, the machine roars in to action and the wood cabin and the floor beneath begin to shake uncontrollably as the magic begins. No, it’s not a time machine, I am not watching Back to the Future, I am in beautiful Grenada, on an organic cocoa plantation watching charismatic ex-pat owner, Kim Russell, produce rich, dark and glossy chocolate in right front of my eyes…with a homemade machine…powered by an old hoover and held together by gaffer tape. Obviously.
Crayfish Bay Organic Farm is wonderfully eccentric, the profit-making schemes and flashy technology of more mainstream producers are cast aside here in the team’s bid for authentic, quality, truly fairtrade chocolate. The workers part own the set-up and everything is done by hand, from the picking of the pods to the roasting of the beans, which are ‘tramped’ (turned) by foot under the Caribbean sun.
“Oh, I was all sorts in my previous life”, explains Essex-born Kim casually, “a coal merchant, an English teacher, a gypsy, I was even a smuggler once. Anyway who’s for tea?” Normally one may ponder on such an admission, but cocoa tea is the ultimate distraction, especially when it is mixed with coconut cream, sugar and local rum and served on a hilltop overlooking the gleaming Atlantic. Well, we all have a colourful past, hey. I was a waitress once. So how on earth did he find himself in this idyllic spot? “You’ll need at least a weekend for that answer,” he said, laughing as he wandered off, brandishing a machete.
Kim and his wife, Lylette, like so many of the islanders, have dedicated their lives to Grenada’s chocolate scene. I thought I loved the stuff but here in Grenada they take being a chocaholic to a whole new level. Here, swearing is uttering the words Dairy Milk. And, despite this stunning island having been at the top of my ‘must visit’ list for years, it is chocolate that has finally brought me here.
Thanks to local hotelier, Magdalena Fielden, this May Grenada celebrated its second chocolate festival. Magdalena and her husband, Russ, sailed in to the picturesque bay 21 years ago and never left. Sipping a rum punch overlooking the sheltered turquoise waters as the steel drums ring in the distance it’s easy to see why.
Coming from Mexico bubbly Magdalena’s passion for chocolate has always been inherent, but has blossomed since moving to the Spice Isle, leading her to create this fun festival dedicated to chocolate. And if you think having fun with chocolate is having a Nigella moment and stuffing your face at midnight, boy are you wrong. The 10-day event had something for everyone; the energetic signed up for the chocolate ‘hash’ – a dash around the forest to find a hidden chocolate party – the foodies cooked up a delicious coconut and chocolate curry and explored cocoa plantations and the factories themselves, and the healthy amidst us embraced chocolate meditation…and stuck to the 100% cocoa bars of course– trust me, they are seriously bitter. That’s dedication!
With chocolate being so important to the island, the festival is gaining momentum and sees countless local restaurants and hotels join in, hosting events or offering special chocolate themed menus. And this island isn’t short of great ingredients either. As we ventured away from Grenada’s main beach, Grand Anse Bay, and wove our way inland towards one of the island’s dramatic waterfalls, the roads were fringed with lush trees parading an amazing collection of fruits and spices; bananas, papaya, coconuts, nutmeg and of course cocoa.
When we reached the west coast fishing village of Gouyave we couldn’t resist checking out the nutmeg factory. Due to hurricane Ivan it is now the only one on the island. I use the term factory loosely, there are no noisy machines or plastic shoes here- this is the real deal. As I walked in to the warehouse I was hit by the smell of nostalgia; rice pudding! The aromatic factory is secretive about its method’s (well, when you produce some of the best nutmeg in the world you need to keep your cards close to your chest!), but they did give us a sneaky peek, starting upstairs in the drying area which looked like a nutmeg library; creaky floorboards held endless rows of shelves covered with thousands of the pungent seeds. Trust me, if our school library had smelt like this instead of dust and decaying Wotsits, Shakespeare and I would be far better acquainted.
Now, nothing calms ones nerves when in the Caribbean quite like a rum punch so we headed off to River Antoine Rum Distillery. Located towards the east coast, it is the Caribbean’s oldest working rum distillery. Unbelievably it still uses its eighteenth century waterwheel and burns sugarcane remnants to power the process- well, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it! The pungent smell of alcohol hits you instantly (another nostalgic scent, hey uni) and the work itself is exhausting beneath the Caribbean sun, but wow is the result delicious… and in true Caribbean style, ridiculously strong at 75%, so strong in fact that it is illegal for us Brits to board a plane with it, so they make a special 69% one for us lightweights.
With so much fresh local produce, the restaurants are unsurprisingly bursting with authentic local dishes. Where to eat is the big decision. BB’s Crabback is a fun and laidback joint in the capital. The graffiti-walled waterfront restaurant is run by celebrity chef Brian Benjamin, who actually launched the brand’s first restaurant in Ealing, London. The crabback was a tasty starter but it’s the goat curry that I still dream of (rumour has it so does Oprah Winfrey). Patrick’s Local Homestyle Cooking restaurant is great for those wanting to experience day to day Grenadian grub in unpretentious surroundings. For a more romantic dinner, Savvy’s restaurant within the Mount Cinnamon boutique hotel is a great choice. The style is elegant, the seafood is superb and the view over Grand Anse bay is the perfect backdrop. On our visit Calabash, a luxury hotel, was offering a special chocolate festival menu in its Rhodes restaurant, from celebrity chef Gary Rhodes. The menu offered unusual concoctions such as glazed shrimps with white chocolate beurre blanc as well as a delicious 71% chocolate pudding.
This mountainous island is thriving with tropical fare and natural beauty. Yet thankfully for us, despite its pristine white sand beaches and quirky boutique hotels, Grenada is still overlooked by holidaymakers distracted by its more obvious neighbouring islands, protecting its spirit and culture. Corals and shipwrecks await keen divers, historic plantations and rich vegetation await foodies, and pristine waters await keen sailors… Grenada doesn’t need a time machine, Grenada is a time machine. Back home in dreary Blighty it is me that needs a time machine so I can get back on that beach, I’ve got the gaffer tape, has anyone seen the Dyson?
For more information on Grenada, visit www.puregrenada.com.
Jessica stayed at www.truebluebay.com, a friendly 3* hotel particularly well suited to those keen to make the most of diving and sailing opportunities and www.mountcinnamongrenadahotel.com, a luxury 4* boutique hotel with dedicated beach access and great dining.