Making jerk seasoning? Chef Nigel Spence has you covered with his latest Caribbean culinary report.
A chocolate factory in Costa Rica may not show up in the top 10 results of an online search for places to stay for a tropical getaway trip but that is exactly where I ended up for one night through my own local search engine, a close friend.
No, his name is not Charlie and although one may conjure up images of that infamous chocolate factory with huge vats of gooey melting chocolate pouring into rivers with chocolate tunnel rides and oompa – loompas, that is not quite what I experienced. Rather it was a few board and zinc roof huts set on a hilltop in the town of San Clemente, on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica, located just south of the most densely populated province of Limon on the Caribbean side of the country.
San Clemente produces some of the absolute best cacao to be grown on this earth. It is from this expertly cultivated fruit that the delectable world class chocolate confections begin their long and arduous journey. Rather than a factory full of little people with machines hissing and gurgling, I was up in the quiet hills amidst indigenous people laboriously cutting cacao, drying, fermenting and ultimately processing all this raw material into chocolate nibs. These are little pieces of raw chocolate which commands a serious price tag and sent to chocolatiers all around the world to produce any and every type of chocolate product known to man.
It all begins right here on this non-descript piece of property where one of the most respected cacao growers in the region resides. The mattress of my bed was a couple of burlap sacs filled with nibs in one of the storage rooms. The aroma that constantly wafted through the air during my night’s sleep made me fully understand the love connection many associate with chocolate. Suffice it to say that I had some pretty interesting dreams for the few hours that I slept.
While on this chocolate camp I learned the importance of the labor intensive fermentation process which, just like grapes during wine production, can determine how well you feed your family by the quality of the end product. This facility is well known for its superior cacao plants and the expert growing and fermentation skills of the owner. He is truly a genius and his product is sold to chocolatiers locally and as far away as Belgium, France and the United States.
With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, this chocolate scientist has been extremely busy since December, though the first ever hurricane in this region recently slowed operations down for a short time. Though chocolate processing is his main business, his newest passion is actually making some finished product of his own, which includes cocoa butter, a very labor intensive process but yields the best stuff I have ever tasted or used on my skin. He also makes chocolate bars of different sugar content and additional flavorings, and chocolate brownies. One thing is for sure, these guys would have no trouble impressing their valentine with a box full of their confections because these products are simply out of this world.
Through watching this Caribbean Willy Wonka do his magic, it inspired me to to attempt to make my own chocolate bars using some of the nibs I nabbed from his personal stash. You may well be able to impress your Valentine this year with your own box of chocolate delights, just don’t forget the requisite flowers that would need to accompany them.
The best part about making them yourself is that you can tailor it to your valentine’s specific wants and needs. You can add as much or as little sugar as you would like and other ingredients such as coconut shavings or strawberry flavoring or even cannabis which seems to be one of the more popular options this year.
Since I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, my fuss for chocolate is incorporating it into savory dishes for a deeper and more complex flavor of the finished product, especially proteins. This grilled steak recipe with a rub that includes the nibs was a big hit with guests at the restaurant. I choose to omit the popular cannabis component.
If you are a true chocolate aficionado, the next time you are in Costa Rica you must make your way to the Caribbean side and take a tour of the chocolate Farms they have in the area.
Cacao Nib Jerk Rub for Steak
3 tablespoons cacao nibs
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon dried scotch bonnet pepper flakes
2 teaspoons ground allspice
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ginger powder
1/8 teaspoon ground cardomom
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until powdery and fully blended. Rub on meat for grilling, roasting or slow cooking, at least an hour before cooking or overnight for maximum flavor development.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for 3 years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cook offs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show , Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.