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.
Terreiro Velho’s 300 acres slope down 325 yards to a palm-fringed beach. Its processing workshop is sweetly intoxicating with the shifting perfumes of fermenting and drying beans.
The feel is artisanal: Corallo designed the clay tile drying platform, with a small wood fire in its belly, and the medieval-looking wooden boxes where the beans ferment longer than average to remove acetic acid.
Fermented, dried and bagged, the beans travel on a small boat to Sao Tome, 90 nautical miles away, to Corallo’s coffee plantation, Nova Moca, where the beans are selected, cleaned and checked by hand, then roasted in batches of similar sizes for a uniform temperature.
Corallo's passion turns now towards a chocolate-making process that will maintain the fragrance straight from the pods with minimum manipulation.
“Modern chocolate-making technology deadens the aromas of cacao while advertising sells us the image of a glossy, shiny, plastic chocolate,” he said.
Conching (massive mechanical stirring) makes chocolate smooth — and dead, said Corallo. Gone are the gritty, earthy, complex flavors. Instead, producers compensate for the lost flavors by adding vanilla, sugarcane, soy, milk, animal fats and worse — just check the ingredients of a supermarket chocolate.
Experts agree. “Cheap chocolate is easily identified by its overpowering smell of vanilla and sugar, and good quality chocolate is all about wondrous aromas — the woody, spicy and floral smells,” wrote Chloe Doutre Roussel in her 2005 book, "The Chocolate Connoisseur." She ranks Corallo’s among the world’s 10 best dark chocolates. Roussel also gives instructions in how to taste chocolate.
Corallo's unique chocolate production is also described by Mort Rosenblum in "Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light."
A family affair
Born in Florence, Italy, Corallo, a tropical agronomist, ran two coffee plantations in the deep heart of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1979 until the 1997 civil war forced him out. He lost everything and moved to Sao Tome.
Like small-scale wine and olive oil makers in his native Tuscany, Corallo Chocolates is a family affair, run with wife, Bettina, and their three children, Ricciarda, Niccolo and Amedeo, aged 22, 20 and 15.
Three years ago, Bettina and Ricciarda moved to Lisbon to open a chocolate shop, near the trendy Bairro Alto, that is becoming a legend among connoisseurs, while Amedeo finishes high school.
Back in Sao Tome, Claudio and Niccolo, 20, manage the plantation, production, packaging and rising exports to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Japan and the United States. A number of gourmet shops stock Corallo chocolates in the United States.
Business is growing. Father and son put in long days from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The small factory, employing 13 people, is behind their simple home on the capital’s seaside promenade, facing the glimmering sea and the Bay of Ana Chaves.
Every evening, after the workers leave, Corallo and his son, Niccolo, welcome visitors for a tasting.
You start with a raw cacao bean, almost like olive oil in its nutty quality. Then, coffee beans, covered in chocolate, from three ancient varieties of arabica grown in Nova Moca. Each bean interacts differently with the chocolate. In one coffee wins; in another, chocolate lingers; in the third, flavours even out in perfect balance.
Next is the sables, an 80 percent chocolate mix with crystalized sugar. End with what Corallo calls “fantasia”: chocolate subtly infused with orange peel, or ginger, or raisins soaked for three weeks in another Corallo delicacy, aguardente liquor distilled from the usually discarded cacao pulp.
This is when you know you won't be satisfied by a supermarket chocolate again.