São Tomé and Príncipe: The chocolate islands

Once the world's largest producer of cocoa, the African islands are finally living up to their nickname again

By Mark Stratton
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:18 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 10:35 BST
Cocoa pod
Photograph by Mark Stratton

My name's Mark and I am a chocoholic. In fact, I'm so addicted my endorphins stir at the faintest whiff of a cocoa plantation.

So, visiting the twin-island state of São Tomé and Príncipe (off the coast of western equatorial Africa) sets my pulse racing. Because back in 1913 Africa's second smallest country was the world's largest producer of cocoa. They were nicknamed the 'Chocolate Islands'.

Under Portuguese colonial rule, production was organised into roças (estates). After independence, in 1975, a lack of investment and collapsing global prices saw São Tome's cocoa-coated heyday slowly melt away.

Today, the roças lie in atmospheric ruins. At Roça Porto Real, on Principé Island, 62-year-old guide, João Catarina Lopes, remembers them well. Jungle has now reclaimed Porto Real's former hospital, while trees impale the tiled roof of a hilltop plantation house from where Portuguese overseers once spied on their workforce.

"The roças were small cities," João explains. "They had schools and hospitals for the workers but these were just to impress outsiders. They were little more than slaves," he sighs.

In recent times, however, a revival of São Tomé and Príncipe's cocoa industry has been gathering momentum. On Principé Island, South African IT billionaire and astronaut Mark Shuttleworth's HBD Group has been investing in sustainable tourism and agricultural.

At its Bom Bom Island Resort, I breakfast upon tropical muesli flecked with succulent cocoa nibs and a rich Nutella-like spread concentrated from local cocoa.

They're manufactured at HBD's Roça Paciência concession, where cocoa production is being re-established alongside vanilla and pepper crops.

Farm supervisor Arlinda Pereira Antonio tells me he was born on this roça 52years ago and that the plantation dates back 500 years.

He cracks open a ripe cocoa pod for me. I scoop out the pod's slippery white flesh. It's deliciously scented and sweetly coats the slightly bitter cocoa beans.

I get one step further to assuaging my cravings, thanks to Claudio Corallo — an Italian known as the 'King of West African Chocolate'. He's one of just a few bean-to-bar chocolatiers working in Africa, rather than exporting the cocoa to Europe, where both the end product and real profit is made.

Claudio's hilltop Roça Terreiro Velha, on Principé, overlooks the Atlantic near dark volcanic hills resembling shards of smashed Easter egg. He's currently back in his native Italy receiving an international award for his chocolate, so his employee, Acacio, shows me around.

Some of the cocoa crop ferments in wooden boxes and on a stone slab dryer heated from below like a Roman hypercaust, thousands of beans are drying.

I scoop up a handful. Divinity. Even in their unprocessed state, a rich chocolate taste bursts through.

"So Claudio's chocolate is made here?" I ask in hope. "No, the beans are sent to São Tome to Claudio's chocolate factory," says Acacio.

Desperate for a fix, I fly to São Tome City the following day. Claudio's factory is located on an ocean boulevard where women sell yellowfin tuna from buckets.

Portuguese exile Catarina Sousa takes me on a tour offered thrice weekly to visitors. The aroma inside is heady. Chocolate bliss. White-coated workers mix gloopy vats of the dark liquid ambrosia before it's solidified and packaged for export.

Would you like to try some, says Catarina, possibly noticing my scarcely veiled drooling at pure chocolate flavoured with orange, Arabica coffee, and ginger?

Yum, the bar of 100% cocoa is a concerto of darkness, velvetiness, and bittersweet notes. I taste earthy volcanic soil, sweet African sunshine and, hopefully, a brighter, chocolate-inspired future for these heavenly islands after decades of neglect.


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