By Jamie Lowe
Where travel story syndication
Cocoa has long been associated with nobility and luxury—when it arrived in Europe after early expeditions, it was enjoyed almost exclusively by the Spanish royal court—but today can be found just about anywhere, driving connoisseurs into adventures around the globe, to Central and South American jungle farms and to notable European establishments, even on chocolate-themed cruises.
The best part? Amazing chocolate can be found all over the world, offered by anyone who has the passion and the right ingredients.
La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm
Henry Escudero, co-owner of La Loma, said he meets his guest in Bocas Town, the largest town in the Bocas del Toro area of Panama, an area that’s a mix of tropical bays and islands. "We take them to La Loma in one of our 25-foot fiberglass Pangas. [It’s] a pleasant sea journey taking in some of the main spots along the way."
La Loma, a 56-acre property, is one of only six lodging options on Bastimentos Island and rests comfortably in the Bahia Honda community at the top of the bay that forms between Bastimentos and Solarte Island. The local population is only about 200 indigenous residents. Guests stay in tree tree-top lodges, built inconspicuously into the jungle or a rock pool cabin, and are fed organic dishes crafted from the lodge’s gardens and, of course, chocolate-based dishes from the cocoa groves.
Escudero said that the first part of touring the 10-acre cocoa grove and chocolate farm is a detailed walk-and-talk session about La Loma’s cocoa reviving history and caring for the cacao plants. As they tour the farm, the La Loma staff present the detailed process of harvesting the cocoa beans from the steamy tropical groves—all under the watchful gazes of the wide-eyed owl monkeys and capuchin monkeys that like to snack on the bean pods.
Maison Cailler Factory
"It is a five-senses tour around the Cailler brand ...with all the ingredients of a ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ experience."
That’ s how Fleur Helmig, business manager at Maison Cailler, describes a tour of this famed Swiss chocolate producer. He calls it "a dreamy multimedia show on the chocolate history" and "an interactive bean-to-bar experience explaining chocolate-making through the makers."
"You can peek into the factory as well as touch, smell [and] taste all ingredients," adds Helmig, who recommends setting aside one hour to three hours for the full tour experience at the oldest chocolate factory in Switzerland.
The original Maison Cailler factory opened in 1898, and today the museum tour experience is visited by roughly 400,000 eager chocolate seekers a year, making Maison Cailler the second most-attended Swiss tourism experience, surpassed only by the Transport Museum in Luzern (where there happens to be a "Chocolate Adventure" experience for kids underwritten by sweets company Lindt).
Spending an hour or more at Maisson Callier gives travelers the chance to experience all of Helmig’s suggestions. There’s also the robotic production room and the tutoring in the art of chocolate tasting to consider. An official end-of-tour tasting of Maison Cailler’s chocolate offerings rounds all this out.
The Chocolate Line: Palace and Plantation
Belgium has a reputation for the best chocolates, so naturally that’s where you could expect to find the best chocolatiers as well. And if you go to Beligum—to Brussels or Antwerp—there is a chocolate shop that has been talked about, lauded and celebrated above others for knowledge, craft and innovation: The Chocolate Line.
The Chocolate Line boasts a European chocolate factory, chocolate bars in Brussels and Antwerp and a chocolate plantation in Yucatan, Mexico. The Chocolate Line uses about 70 tons of chocolate a year, according to owner Dominique Persoone.
Persoone has been called by some the "mad scientist of chocolate" for his inventive mixtures of textures, flavors and ingredients. His company supplies chocolate dishes and creations for three of the top Michelin-starred restaurants in Belgium and Persoone says the chefs of those restaurants that he’s let taste his red, criollo-based creations have been very pleased.
The shop in Antwerp is within the Paleis op de Meir; it’s a palace of 18th-century splendor that was once owned by Napoleon and which is owned today by the Flemish government. The location has been called the most beautiful chocolate shop in Europe, but Dominique says that the Chocolate Line shop at the palace was a complete surprise.
"It was an open-letter [application process], and everybody wanted to do something with the palace," Persoone explained. He said he wrote the letter "with some beers and some friends," and thought he’d never get accepted by the Flemish government. "I’d actually forgotten about it when they called me and congratulated me on my application. Then I had to go and convince my wife to do it; She’s the big boss of the company."
The chocolatier offers location-specific chocolates that tap into the history of each location. "Napoleon’s Girlfriends" chocolates—with various women adorning the package—are sold only at the Antwerp location. "He did have a lot of girlfriends," said Persoone.
If the chocolate bonbons aren’t your speed, you can sniff cocoa thanks to the "chocolate shooter" that Persoone crafted as a gift to the Rolling Stones during a birthday celebration. It’s a clear, glasslooking contraption that Persoone says is modeled after his grandfather’s late-century snuff shooter, but which allows users to inhale cocoa powder tinted with mint and other flavors.
Chaq Chao Chocolates
Ready to go straight to the source? In Arequipa, Peru, head to Chaq Chao Chocolates for classes that teach the traditional secrets of the Peruvian chocolate-making.
"We started making chocolate as we both have a passion for eating dark chocolate and we saw that there was a business opportunity for this kind of product in Arequipa," said Javier Chavez, co-owner of Chaq Chao. "When we opened there was no company in Arequipa making bean-to-bar chocolate out of organic Peruvian cacao."
This locally owned chocolate factory and cafe roasts only Peruvian cocoa beans for up to 36 hours to make chocolate that is sold at the Chaq Chao cafe. The cafe features bars, bonbons and pastries.
"The motivation came after visiting Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco where they were making bean-to-bar chocolate from Peruvian cacao," said Chavez. "We decided to open the cafe after making our first big batch of bars and selling out of them in one day at a local market."
There’s also the Chocolate Del Grano a la Barra workshop, to learn directly from the co-owners how to process cocoa beans into edible chocolate bars and a bonbon-making class that lets participants choose the blend for their own bonbon fillings.
Boucan, by Hotel Chocolat
If a luxurious Caribbean island resort is more your speed, keep an eye on Boucan, by Hotel Chocolat. This boutique hotel, spa and the adjacent cocoa grove is on St. Lucia island near the recognizable Pitons mountains. The hotel is a mash-up of high-class island style and nature, set on the Rabot Estates—purchased in 2006 from owners who lived there since the 1930s.
Guests are offered self-guided 45-minute walk tours of the property through different levels of the cocoa grove and the surrounding area, but for the full effect, take a dedicated plantation tour with Culbert Monroque, tour guide and champion of the tree-to-bar experience offered at Boucan. On Monroque’s two-hour tour, patrons walk the groves and select pods to cut from trees for hand-making chocolate bars.
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