The King's Cacao: Striving for the World's Best Chocolate

In a remote corner of the global village, an Italian believes he's developed the best of all chocolate recipes. Claudio Corallo lives on an island off Nigeria and ships his small-batch chocolate around the world.

Most people, says Claudio Corallo, don't have the slightest idea what chocolate is -- or what it can be.

Corallo, 56, with a gray moustache and soft eyes, whips out his pocket knife and slices off a piece of the bar of chocolate in front of him: 70 percent chocolate with raisins in cacao liquor. He smells it, then leans back and watches the testers close their eyes and allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the strong, aromatic taste of cacao, the sweetness of the raisins and the essence of the alcohol. He smiles.

"And?" he asks.

According to Corallo, anyone trying his chocolate for the first time realizes that he has never truly eaten chocolate. He believes nothing quite matches up to his 75-percent chocolate with ginger, his 80-percent chocolate with crystal sugar, or the queen of them all: pure, 100-percent chocolate.

Corallo has made it his mission to create the best chocolate in the world.

His laboratory sits behind his house on the beachfront road in São Tomé, capital of a small, remote country few people have heard of -- São Tomé and Príncipe, a onetime Portuguese colony off the coast of Nigeria consisting of two volcanic archipelagos in the Gulf of Guinea. In the nineteenth century the islands were known principally for two things: slaves and cacao. Today they still have cacao.

Corallo was born in Florence but has lived in Africa for 34 years. He taught himself everything there is to know about chocolate.

He and his creations are celebrated in gourmet magazines. He ships "Corallo Cacao" -- a luxury product in a country where very few people can afford to spend €10 on 130 grams of chocolate -- to France, Italy, Spain, the United States and Japan.

But he's fighting a lonely battle. He is less interested in giving the world luxury than honesty.

"Chocolate today is a lot of talk, a lot of sugar and a lot of packaging," he says, pulling a box from his shelf. "This is 100 percent cacao from Venezuela, very expensive." He sniffs it, places a piece into his mouth and makes a face. "Fatty, bitter, no aroma. If this is considered good, I shudder to imagine what bad is. But our chocolate -- that's where you can taste the fruit."

His foes are the multinational corporations that control the chocolate business, process low-quality cacao and use technology to render it edible. "They put it through a conch, a machine that's designed to deprive cacao of its taste," he says, referring to a kneading machine that supposedly refines cacao. The cacao is finely grated in this machine and heated to 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit), at which point it tastes of absolutely nothing. They add vanilla to give it an aroma again, call it a delicacy, and people pay up to €100 a kilo for that. For a dead product!"

Ordinary milk chocolate from the supermarket, he says, is a lot more honest.

Treating Beans like Grapes

There are three things Corallo loves most in life: coffee, cacao and coconuts.

He started with coffee. He was 22 when he left Italy for Zaire, because everything in Italy seemed too complete for his taste. He took over two abandoned plantations and began growing coffee. There were years-long stretches when he didn't leave his 2,500-hectare (6,178-acre) plantation in the jungle, 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) by riverboat from the capital Kinshasa. He contracted malaria and bilharzia, an insidious disease caused by parasitic worms. But he loved his coffee, and he says that he was the first to treat coffee like a wine grower.

Then the war came. Rebels occupied the coffee fields, and in 1993 Corallo fled with his wife and two children to São Tomé. That was how he found his way to cacao.

At first the family lived in a wooden hut on the beach in Príncipe, the smaller island. There were so few people in the area that sometimes they would walk around naked. On hikes through the forest Corallo came across old cacao plants, descendants of the first bushes brought from Brazil to Africa in 1819, on orders from the Portuguese king.

These plants are no secret. They're less productive than the modern hybrids used by the rest of the chocolate industry, but the beans taste vastly better. And for someone who wants to make the best chocolate, cacao is all-important.

It took Corallo years to find the right method. He ferments the beans for over two weeks, not unlike the grapes used in making wine. This develops the flavor. Hardly anyone ferments the beans as long as he does. Then they're dried in an oven, and women in white coats and masks shake the beans and remove the bitter seeds by hand. A homemade fan blows the fine dust from the bean. The cacao paste is made at the end. Most other details are secret.

Corallo isn't fond of dealing with the business end of things, which may explain why his business has never boomed. He doesn't speak English and rarely travels to Europe, which he finds has changed for the worse. He refers to Florence, his hometown, as a Disneyland for tourists, a place overloaded with luxury where "normal cars no longer exist."

Corallo is a perfectionist, a man obsessed with taste and results. He is not an easy man to live with. He and his wife divorced not long ago; now she lives in Lisbon.

He reaches for his machete and climbs into his turquoise Fiat Cinquecento, ready to drive out to his plantation. "I believe that the chocolate industry is afraid of us. It should be, anyway. A little more 75-percent with bits of cacao?"

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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