St. Lucia, a tropical Caribbean Island of incredible beauty and diversity in landscape, people and customs, lies 1,300 miles southeast of Florida, in the Windward Islands, a part of the West Indies. This 238-square mile island has lush rain forests where cocoa trees grow wild. Cocoa, bananas and coconuts are their top exports. It is now a popular tourist destination — my family’s destination on a past dream vacation.

When temperatures and humidity levels both reached into the mid-eighties, the cocoa trees with their bountiful overlapping huge leaves, created a cool air-conditioned canopy. Very little sunlight found its way to the floor of the cocoa plantation we visited, preserving ground moisture. The colors of the trees, blossoms, fruit and leaves, and the native dress of the women workers, combined to create a kaleidoscope of vivid colors. Growing in dense clusters straight out of the trunks and main branches were delicate pink flowers. The cocoa pods themselves boasted an array of yellows, greens, oranges, maroons and reds.

Our guide told us it takes an expert eye to determine which pods are ripe enough to pick. Thumping on the outside of the pod, hoping for a hollow sound, helps the workers judge which ones are ripe. Machete-wielding women cracked open piles of pods, each revealing a surprisingly slimy white bean mass. This white pulp is a delicacy that we found to be extremely sweet and delicious. We were warned, however, NOT to bite into the actual beans hidden within the mass, as the taste is very bitter. The natives called these beans Jungle M&Ms.

As the machete crew continued to crack the pods, another group of women used their hands and fingers to scoop out the pulp and beans, placing it into fermenting boxes in the fermentation house. There they were covered with green banana leaves and flat boards, and left to ferment for up to ten days. During that time they changed from white, to purple, to chocolate brown. The change in color is the result of bacteria and yeast present in the air that multiply on the sugary pulp that surrounds the beans. (It is this decomposition that produces a clear liquid called cocoa vinegar that is sold to make cooking sauces and salad dressings.) As the temperatures rose, so did the sweet cocoa aroma.

After fermentation, the beans are spread outside on trays to air dry unprotected for three to five weeks. The workers turn them often with huge wooden shovels carved decades ago for that purpose. (Frequent rains affect drying times.)

Most of the dried beans are cleaned, bagged and trucked into Castries, the capital, for export. Ninety-five percent of St. Lucia’s plantation grown cocoa is shipped to Hershey’s in Pennsylvania! Some beans are polished and made into jewelry or trinkets for awestruck tourists (like your travelling correspondent from your favorite Chocolate of the Month Club) to keep the vacation memories vivid.

This  Month’s Heavenly Chocolate Selection:

“TOFFEE & PRALINES Center pieces are  DARK CHOCOLATE ALMOND TOFFEE  The outer pieces are MILK CHOCOLATE with a Mocha Mousse  Middle — and — Hazelnut Pralines covered in WHITE CHOCOLATE

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