On Africa’s 'chocolate islands', cocoa producers target luxury market

A morsel of chocolate sits on the tongue, and a strong yet subtle flavor starts to blossom.

"When the chocolate starts to soften, you bite into it," orders chocolatier, Claudio Corallo.

The chocolate tasting then expands into different flavors - ginger, coffee, pepper, sea salt - but underpinning each of these delights is an earthiness, a richness that comes from cocoa trees that grow in volcanic soil, wafted by the tropical Atlantic breeze.

They grow in Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny island nation off the west coast of Africa that has a rich but also tragic association with chocolate.

Once named the "chocolate islands", the Portuguese-speaking archipelago was the world's leading cocoa producer at the end of the 19th century.

Then, as competition mounted in the second half of the 20th century, the sector was almost wiped out. Many plantations were abandoned, and their fields and buildings were taken over by nature.

Today, though, there is talk of a comeback as a handful of entrepreneurs pitch to the growing world market for high-end chocolate.

"Focusing on quality is the only way to survive," said Jean-Remy Martin, a Frenchman who revived an old, dying plantation about a decade ago on the island of Sao Tome, in Diogo Vaz.

The place gave its name to a brand of chocolate Martin created with his son. Its 82-percent "Grand Cru" organic chocolate - with "hints of flowers, smoke, spices and fruit" - sells to online buyers in Europe for 6.40 euros ($7.42) a bar.

His spread of 420 hectares (about 1,000 acres) lies on the slopes of an ancient volcano overlooking the Atlantic, using cocoa trees that are the descendants of plants brought in by the Portuguese in the 18th century.

Mechanized farming on this...

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