Sunday, January 30, 2011
Chocolate connoisseurs may well be aware of the superior quality of chocolate from the Caribbean yet it is the Swiss, the Belgians, the French and the Italians who are credited with refining it into fine flavoured chocolate bars and bonbons. That is because most of the chocolate produced in the region is shipped abroad to be crafted into luxury chocolates - until now. Meet Trinidadian Isabel Brash, architect turned chocolate maker and chocolatier. Her company is called COCOBEL and her chocolates are handmade from the finest quality trinitario beans from her brother’s Rancho Quemado Estate in south Trinidad.
Worldwide it is uncommon to find someone like Isabel who is both a chocolate maker and a chocolatier. Making chocolate is an exacting and somewhat arduous process so most chocolatiers opt to buy their chocolate from chocolate makers. These are the persons who are responsible for roasting and grinding the beans to produce a fine-flavour, fine-quality chocolate also called couverture. Chocolatiers then use the science of confectionary and their imagination to create wonderful confections and other chocolate products.
Isabel’s involvement in the process from bean to bar ensures that her chocolate is of the highest quality and her imagination knows no bounds. Fancy a ponche de crème, sorrel or gingerbread spice? Maybe a cashew gianduja, honey passionfruit or a ginger rum is more to your liking? My personal favourite is the mango pepper. Sweet with a little heat, it captures the spirit and spice of the islands all in one delectable little bite.
COCOBEL chocolate is a completely different experience from the mass produced bars sold in stores where the predominant flavour note is sugar more than it is chocolate. Who knew that chocolate could have so many different flavours? I had always thought that chocolate tasted like…well… chocolate. Turns out chocolate can taste like vanilla or berries or bananas or spices depending on the region in which the cocoa was grown.
Isabel’s decision to make chocolate for a living was not a conscious one. In 2005 she returned home from London with her master’s degree in architecture and worked in partnership with another architect for three years before ‘falling’ into cocoa. One day while eating some chocolate she wondered to herself, “When a piece of chocolate melts in your mouth and your eyes close down for a couple seconds… how does this happen? How does it get from that tree to this beautiful thing in my mouth?”
At the time work was slow and so she started researching chocolate purely out of curiosity. Eventually she asked her brother to bring home some dried beans from his cocoa estate. “I started to experiment with roasting, cracking, winnowing, grinding….just so! I felt like a scientist!" According to Isabel the growth of her chocolate company COCOBEL has been very organic. It started as pure curiosity and it gradually took over her life. “I just started leaning more towards exploring chocolates…then I was leaning harder and harder…then I fell into the same hole that Alice in Wonderland fell into! Down, down, down…curiouser and curiouser! Door after door and I did not look back. I will always be an architect, I am just an architect now of chocolate!”
Isabel designs everything to do with the look of the product. From brochures to packaging, she does it all. The Cocobel logo is a result of her study of the cacao flower. “This flower is very small but extremely intricate and mesmerizing—it almost looks like it wants to swallow you!” She explains, “Only about 5% of the flowers survive to become cacao pods.” Such is her passion for her company and the work that she now does she has even tattooed the logo onto her arm.
At first she was only making chocolates for family and friends. Then the need to name her business came about in 2009 when she attended the World Cocoa Federation meeting. While searching for a suitable name, something that was indigenous-perhaps something Amerindian, her father suggested COCOBEL. Everyone loved the name but Isabel wasn’t sold on it. “It’s a pretty name but I did not want people to think that the brand was named after me." She finally embraced it when her father came back from a fishing trip and told her that his patois speaking friends had said that Cocobel meant, beautiful, brown girl. “I loved it…patois! So that is what it means to me…dark beauty.”
For Isabel one of the challenges in an endeavour such as this is has been in getting out there and educating the market about her chocolates. Initially, “I was being compared to commercial chocolates and people were not aware of the difference or why my prices were so much higher.” Recently there has been a wave of interest in the health benefits of dark chocolate and people are more appreciative of her efforts. Isabel is optimistic that she won’t be the only one with this kind of business for long, “We do have some fine cacao, that is for sure and more and more people are going to get into chocolate production now, you will see!" In the meantime great things are in store for the continued growth of COCOBEL.
If you are thinking about ordering Cocobel chocolates for Valentine's Day then you would do well to order early. Over the Christmas season Isabel was forced to close in order to fill existing orders. You can contact her at cocobelchocolates (at) yahoo (dot) com. A website is in the works and in the future Isabel hopes to ship her pure dark bars internationally but for now her filled chocolates will only be sold in Trinidad. “I would love if people came here to sample Trinidad’s cocoa estates and come by and visit COCOBEL to get a taste of our island sweetness!”
Asked about her inspiration for the soft fruit fillings and spices in her chocolates, Isabel says that she starts with what she loves and tastes that she grew up with. “As far as the flavour design process goes, the only reason that mango and passionfruit and local hot pepper sound strange to be put with chocolate is because chocolate is hardly made in our region. We have so many amazing fruits here. Many that you never see in the supermarket…the possibilities are endless really.” She goes on to say that locally people associate chocolate with “foreign” and cocoa as local. Isabel is of the opinion that if we can grow some of the finest cocoa beans in the world then surely we can make fine chocolates too. Having tasted her chocolates I’m inclined to agree.
Posted by Wizzy John at 5:22 PM