The British entrepreneurs behind Hotel Chocolat have revolutionised the industry by growing their own beans, and bringing ethically produced, high-quality chocolate to a mass market. We visit their idyllic estate on St Lucia to discover how they do it.
One of the most surprising things about Hotel Chocolat, the confectionery brand that has become a familiar presence on our high streets, is that it actually owns a real, physical hotel. And not just any old hotel: Boucan resides on the palm-strewn western tip of St Lucia, just outside Soufrière, the island’s former French capital.
It’s part of the estate on which the company grows – uniquely in the industry – several thousand of its own cocoa trees, producing 20 tons of cocoa each year to make its own single-estate bars, Easter eggs and truffles.
A brief walk through the estate reveals the magnificent eccentricity of the cocoa tree – rarely planted in straight lines, it grows in random groves on slopes or in valleys, shaded by macumba, lucina, avocado and red-fruit trees, its pendulous leaves providing cover for vast cocoa pods that look as though they have been carved from some exotic wood.
By contrast, the flower is a tiny, delicate, milky thing, pollinated by midges and small ants – altogether an unlikely parent for a hard, brown pod as big as your head.
Boucan, a name that derives from the Old French word for drying room, was launched in 2011 by Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris, the co-founders of Hotel Chocolat.
They met when Harris employed Thirlwell in a tech venture and went on to launch a mint-packaging company, only moving into chocolate when their clients began to demand ‘something more interesting than mints’. They started an online chocolate mail-order company in the 1990s, ‘long before Amazon got in on the act’, says Thirlwell, ‘and when there wasn’t much good chocolate around in the UK’.
Buying chocolate from Europe, they experimented with new recipes, trying to make the product less sweet, more like the chocolate that had been eaten and drunk in the 18th century. ‘Sugar is a relatively recent addition,’ says Thirlwell. ‘One hundred years ago there was hardly any in chocolate.’ Then they began making their own moulds.
‘We watched how the chocolate set after tempering,’ Thirlwell explains, describing the controlled heating and cooling of molten chocolate, which gives the finished product its shine and snap. This inspired the mould for Hotel Chocolat’s Giant Slabs, the non-bar-shaped bars that were ‘quite radical at the time: chocolate with a high cocoa content sold in fluid shapes’.
The pair opened their first shop in 2004 in Watford, calling it, auspiciously as it turned out, Hotel Chocolat, ‘not because it was one but because it sounded luxurious’. And when Thirlwell mentioned to members of the company’s chocolate-tasting club that he was off to the Caribbean to visit his father, one of them sent him a book about the history of cocoa growing in the West Indies.
‘It made me want to become a cocoa grower,’ Thirlwell says. ‘I hadn’t realised how common it had been in the past for chocolatiers to make their own chocolate. Nowadays, most buy theirs ready-made from specialist bean converters, but I thought, why don’t we start growing our own cocoa and create a direct connection between the bean and our bars?’
Thirlwell and Harris were seduced by the 140-acre Rabot Estate, founded in 1745 as a sugar plantation, which had subsequently switched to cocoa.
It is a mini paradise, 1,000ft above sea level, covered in cocoa, coconut and banana palms, with its own 18th-century estate house. Historically, Rabot had weathered many storms, including being fought over by French and English soldiers in 1795 (the French won), devastating hurricanes, the rise of the banana industry, which knocked cocoa growing off the map in the Caribbean, and its resulting decline into a state of overgrown disrepair.
‘After we bought it we discovered that no one in St Lucia knew anything about growing cocoa,’ Thirlwell says. ‘Cocoa plantations were being replaced with bananas, which kept failing. It was very difficult to be a successful cocoa farmer on such a small island.’
With the help of a small team including Phil Buckley, an engineer who had previously worked with Mars and Cadbury, and dedicated nurseryman Cuthbert Monroque, they restored the estate, now with 70 acres (on its way to 100) planted with 3,000 mature cocoa trees, some of which are rare heritage varieties discovered in the 1930s. The nursery, a Mr McGregor-esque set-up of ancient greenhouses and potting sheds, contains 20,000 seedlings, descendants of the original 100 species.
The company instigated an Engaged Ethics programme in 2008, providing training and dependable funding for growers on St Lucia. Hotel Chocolat sells them the seedlings raised on the estate at a discount, with the promise that they will buy everything produced – at a higher rate than the existing market price.
‘Until we got here, cocoa was a dead crop – no money and no investment,’ says Buckley. ‘Now cocoa yields are 50 per cent higher on the island.’ The scheme, which goes beyond many fair-trade agreements in terms of the company’s levels of investment, has been so successful that they currently have 200 St Lucian cocoa growers supplying more than 55 tons of wet beans (those that have not yet been fermented, dried and roasted) a year.
A brief walk through the estate reveals the magnificent eccentricity of the cocoa tree
‘And that looks set to rise,’ adds Buckley, ‘as the farmers’ new seedlings reach maturity and start to produce their own cocoa.’ Jeremiah Louis-Fernand, a grower who acts as a rep for many farmers, is enthusiastic about the programme. ‘It encourages employment on the island and helps to maintain a standard in cocoa growing that we hadn’t had before.’
Guests who visit Boucan (which now has a restaurant, spa and bar) don’t have to like chocolate, but it certainly helps. Not only is the chef a cocoa fan (creating cocoa-pulp sorbets, roasted cacao nibs, cacao chicken), but cocoa also appears in many of the bar’s drinks, and in the spa, where you can spend an exotic hour slathered in a mix of melted chocolate and mashed banana.
The hotel runs tree-to-bean and bean-to-bar sessions, during which visitors make their own chocolate bars, while Monroque explains the (incredibly labour-intensive) cocoa-picking process.
Each pod must be removed by hand, either by gentle twisting or deft deployment of a 20ft-long knife – a bamboo pole with a sharp hooked blade at the tip. Then the pods (many of which are the size of a rugby ball and weigh up to 7lbs) must be transported from an inaccessible jungle slope to a road.
Once at the nursery’s processing area, the pods are split open and their contents – cocoa beans wrapped in a slimy sweet mucilage – deposited into a fermentation bucket covered in palm leaves for seven days until the beans begin to turn pink.
The beans are then sun-dried, sorted by hand, and roasted in a 45C (113F) oven for 20 minutes, before being shipped back to the UK to be ground into nibs. After that, the conching, or chocolate-making stage, can begin. The nibs are put into a conche (a piece of machinery that ‘agitates’ the ingredients) with cocoa butter and left to revolve for up to 72 hours – the resulting paste is then heated, tempered and poured into moulds.
Hotel Chocolat’s experiments in chocolate making and cocoa management continue. It has rolled out its Engaged Ethics programme for cocoa growers in Ghana, where it supports 40 cocoa-growing communities, while its UK empire gathers pace with two restaurants, 13 cafés and a School of Chocolate.
Last year it floated on the London Stock Exchange and was awarded Business of the Year (for companies with an annual turnover of between £25 million and £500 million) at Lloyds Bank’s National Business Awards. In world cocoa terms, the Rabot Estate is tiny – one of what is known as the ‘fine or flavour’ five per cent (95 per cent of the world’s cocoa is commercially grown on huge estates – classed as ‘bulk’) – but its aims are enormous, not least with the world’s first tree-to-bean factory, which is being built on the Rabot Estate to process all its cocoa in situ.
But perhaps of most interest to serious chocolate fanatics is the Rabot single-côte bar, made with beans not just from its single estate but from a particular côte, or terroir. ‘We were the first cocoa grower in the world to sell a single-estate chocolate bar,’ notes Buckley. ‘Now we sell three different côtes and are in the process of launching a fourth.’
Watch out for that; it’s the kind of thing that makes chocolate lovers – and a certain type of grower – very excited. No wonder Thirlwell thinks he’s got ‘the best job in the world: making people happy’.
To book a stay at the Boucan hotel on the Rabot Estate, go to hotelchocolat.com/uk/boucan