The chocolate king of São Tomé

Xan Rice visits a man who has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the wo

On a small Atlantic island on the equator, in a lemon-coloured bungalow with a clear view over a tinfoil bay, lives the Italian honorary consul. In his drive-way are two ancient Fiat Pandas. In his back garden is a chocolate factory. The consul’s name is Claudio Corallo. He is 57 and lean, with neat grey hair, a matching moustache and an inventor’s lively eyes. He speaks five languages fluently, and English sparingly and excitedly.

"Paradise!" and "Magic!" are a few of his stock English words, and could describe the allure of the rainforest, or the transformation of the humble cocoa bean into fine chocolate. "Shameless!" and "Shit!" are other favourites, and might refer to the marketing gimmicks of some of his competitors, or the state of western society.

For the past decade, Corallo has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the world. His bars, which range in cocoa content from 60 per cent to 100 per cent, and may contain ginger, arabica coffee beans, orange rind or plump raisins soaked for months in his home-made cocoa-pulp alcohol, sell for between seveb and nine euros (£6.20 and £8) for 100g in Europe, the United States and Japan.

That puts Corallo in the same market as the world's leading gourmet chocolate-makers, such as Valrhona and Pralus in France and Italy's Amedei and Domori. Yet he has little in common with any of them.

For one, Corallo makes his chocolate at, or at least very near, source - on São Tomé, off the west coast of Africa, population 160,000 (including ten Italians), where the electricity is intermittent and flights to Europe depart once a week. Equally unusually, he controls the entire process, from the tree to the bar.

Most fine chocolate-makers buy their cocoa from farmers thousands of miles away. Corallo grows his own cocoa on a 120-hectare plantation on Príncipe, the twin island of São Tomé, 90 miles to the north-east, where he spends part of each month living in a tumbledown colonial-era house, with no power, no hot water and a system of air-conditioning that involves leaving all the windows open.

And then there is his attitude to life and to business. Corallo describes himself as "a free man, an anarchist" and counts among his closest friends a Basque man exiled to São Tomé two decades ago because of his alleged links to the terrorist organisation ETA. Though he wants people to eat his chocolate, Corallo abhors having to persuade customers to buy it. He lost a contract with Fortnum & Mason a few years ago principally because he refused to make fancy wrappers for his product.

"I hate compromise," he says. "And marketing is compromise."

Even today, the simple packaging on his bars contains only his name, and his chocolate's place of origin. There is little hint of his story.

As a boy growing up in Florence, Corallo dreamed of forests. He studied tropical agronomy after school. When he was 23, he gave up his job as a diver for a dredging company in Trieste to move to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It was 1974. Muhammad Ali had just fought George Foreman in the epic Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa. Mobutu Sese Seko's government, which had staged the fight, hired Corallo as an agricultural researcher. The job did not inspire him, but the jungle did.

Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing

Five years on, he bought a run-down, 1,250-hectare coffee farm in Lomela, right in the centre of the country. The safest way to get there from the capital was a thousand-mile boat trip up the Congo River, taking up to two weeks. His wife, Bettina, the daughter of the Portuguese ambassador to Congo, was the first white woman local people had ever seen arriving on a pirogue.

"It was a paradise. Shorts, shirt, no shoes, machete. All you needed to live," says Corallo.

He ignored the textbooks on coffee cultivation, relying instead on trial and error. His methods ranged from the strange - talking to his pack cows rather than using whips - to the improvisational - using lianas from the forest rather than nails to join fence poles. He sent his export-quality robusta beans to Kinshasa using a modified barge originally owned by Belgian missionaries.

By 1989, shortly before the world coffee price plunged by more than half in a few months, he was making good money and employed more than 1,000 workers. He had a daughter, Ricci arda, and Bettina was in Argentina, where her father was now the ambassador, about to give birth to a son.

Facing financial ruin, Corallo left the plantation and headed into the forest. He took a single book with him: Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. "I felt like Colonel Aureliano Buendía, with the world crashing around me," he says.

When he emerged six months later (he would not see his son and current right-hand man, Niccoló, until he was nearly a year old), he had an idea to boost sales by working with nearby coffee farmers. The plan worked and his farm was saved, but other dangers were looming.

Congo was growing unstable, with rebel forces becoming active in the area. By late 1996, when Laurent Kabila's militias began marching towards Kinshasa from the east, signalling the end of the Mobutu era, Corallo knew that his time in Congo was coming to an end. Returning to Europe was not an option. "If I had been forced to go, there were two possibilities: either I would have been put in prison within two months, or I would have been forced to take heroin - with an industrial pump."

He wanted to stay in central Africa. And he wanted to farm.

Cocoa is believed to have originated in the forests between the Amazon River in Brazil and the Orinoco River in Venezuela. It thrives in the tropics. Around 1822, sailors brought seedlings from Brazil to São Tomé and Príncipe, also a Portuguese colony.

The trees took quickly to the rich volcanic soil. By the turn of the 20th century, São Tomé was the biggest producer of cocoa in the world. Customers included the leading British chocolate manufacturers Cadbury and Fry, both Quaker-rooted companies that prided themselves on their principles.

There was, however, a terrible secret to their supply chain - slavery. In 1904, the American magazine Harper's sent the British war correspondent Henry W Nevinson to West Africa to investigate reports of forced labour along the coast. "The islands possess exactly the kind of climate that kills men and makes the cocoa tree flourish," he wrote of São Tomé in his final despatch, titled The Islands of Doom. The 20,000-plus slaves on the plantations - more than half the country's population - were doing most of the dying. On Príncipe, the annual death rate was 21 per cent - giving a slave a life expectancy of under five years.

Shamed into action, the British companies soon shifted their supply source to the then Gold Coast (now Ghana), signalling the start of São Tomé's steady decline among the international cocoa producers. By the time Corallo arrived in São Tomé in 1997, many of the old plantations had long been abandoned. After much searching, he stumbled across the Terreiro Velho farm on Príncipe's humid coast, and purchased it from the state. The colonial house had gone to ruin; a resurgent jungle had hidden many of the 20,000 cocoa trees.

On the beach Corallo built a wooden bungalow for his young family, and they began to clear the plantation. He was confident that he could farm cocoa successfully. But could he also turn it into fine chocolate?

Although the plantation had old cocoa trees of a quality superior to that of the more recently introduced hybrids found on mainland Africa, they were still forasteros - the most common of the three varieties of cocoa, and the blandest in taste. Almost all fine dark chocolate is made from trinitario and, very rarely, criollo beans.

Corallo was undaunted. He believed he could make up for the beans' inherent limitations by applying the same commitment that winemakers and olive growers show their crops - the sort of attention rarely seen in the world of chocolate.

"Good chocolate is not necessarily a problem of variety," he says. "It is a problem of work."

One morning at 6am, Corallo picked me up at my guest house in São Tomé, the islands’ capital city. He wore his usual uniform: old polo shirt, a cheap Casio digital watch, well-worn moccasins and faded Bermuda shorts. Hanging from a green string on his belt was a tiny Swiss army knife.

He was driving his dark green Panda, which he bought for ?500 in Italy and shipped to São Tomé. Even on an island of constant surprises - the previous evening I had seen a man driving down the main seafront road with a monkey bouncing on his shoulder - the car marked Corallo as different. Most expatriates here drive expensive 4x4s.

"Even if I was offered a Mercedes I would keep the Panda," he says. "Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing."

We headed away from the Atlantic Ocean, towards the smoky mountains that loom over the town. Banana plants and breadfruit trees formed part of a luxuriant green wall pushing against the narrow, twisting road. After half an hour we had travelled 11 miles and ascended nearly 1,000 metres to reach Corallo's Nova Moca farm on São Tomé, which doubles as a coffee plantation and an extension of his chocolate factory. On terraced fields either side of an old abandoned farmhouse grew seven different varieties of arabica, robusta and liberica coffee.

The trees give him a small yet high-quality crop - his yield is little more than one-hundredth of that on a commercial coffee farm - and it is sold only in Portugal. Cocoa is what makes the money.

On the plantation on neighbouring Príncipe, Corallo's workers cut the ripe, melon-shaped cocoa pods from the trees using machetes, and crack them open with sticks to extract the beans. Nearby small-scale farmers who share his farming philosophy harvest at similar times and sell him their cocoa, as he pays much more than brokers in São Tomé.

Convention suggests forastero beans should be fermented - a process that gives them their chocolate taste - for about six days. But Corallo insisted on doing his own experiments to find the optimum period.

"I always start from zero [scratch]. Even if people say I start one way, I start with zero."

His trials suggested six days was not enough; instead, he ferments his beans for well over two weeks on his own bespoke racks. (He asked me not to reveal the exact number of fermentation days. It's a trade secret.)

The traditional way to dry the beans after fermentation is to lay them in the sun. But Corallo has his own methods that he believes to be superior: either spreading the beans over a platform of heated clay tiles, or placing them in a huge aerated cylinder that a friend built for him in Italy.

Once dried, the beans are packed aboard an old fishing trawler for the six-hour journey to São Tomé. They are then transported to Nova Moca for careful cleaning and sorting, roasted in Corallo's factory at his beachfront house, and returned to the coffee plantation.

Under a covered platform, with the ocean shimmering in the distance, stood several long wooden tables. Thirty men and women, each wearing a white overcoat, a hairnet and a face mask, sat with a pile of cocoa beans in front of them.

Carefully they stripped each bean of its outer shell and discarded the tiny, acrid germ, leaving just the cocoa nibs. This process, winnowing, is usually done by machine, but Corallo believes that the quality of the chocolate suffers as a result. By doing things manually he is also creating employment; at peak times there are 60 people on shelling duty, each earning what is, by local standards, a decent wage.

From Nova Moca, the nibs are returned to Corallo's four-room factory in his backyard, which he built using two shipping containers as the skeleton, lined with African teak. In the narrow entranceway, workers use a system of fans to blow away any residual particles of dust clinging to the nibs. The nibs are then ground by machine into cocoa liquor. After a few other refinements - some secret - the cocoa is ready to be turned into chocolate.

Later the same day, I visited the factory, following the aroma of dark chocolate from the driveway. Workers were scurrying around with trays of chocolate ready for cutting and packaging. Corallo, meanwhile, was eating - and drinking - into his profits. He had already guzzled "about 30" samples of his newest creation: chocolate balls featuring a core of 2 grams of ginger inside a layer of 100 per cent cocoa.

He had also taken several sips of his prized alcohol, 74 per cent proof and chest-warming, with a rich, fruity aftertaste. It is made from the sticky white pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans inside the pod and which is discarded by most farmers.

As with his coffee, the yield is tiny - one litre for every tonne of beans - making commercial production impossible. Instead, he soaks raisins in the alcohol before hiding them inside fat, 50g chunks of dark chocolate. It is easily his bestselling product.

But the chocolate he puts in front of all visitors, many of whom arrive at his gate unannounced and are welcomed into the factory, is his 100 per cent pure cocoa bar. Sugar gives chocolate its sweetness - tasting a bar without any "is like examining the cocoa beans under the microscope", Corallo says.

He cut a small piece and laid it on a tray. Then he took out several bars made by his competitors and cut a morsel off each. Finally, he poured a glass of water.

A few of the samples were so bitter as to be inedible. Others, marginally less bitter, tasted fatty and clung to the palate. It was hardly a scientific test, but there was no doubt that Corallo's bar tasted sharper and was by far the least bitter.

"You see?" he said. "The type of bean does not matter. If it tastes good, it's good."

After a decade on the island, Corallo is well known, and respected. One afternoon I was interviewing Rafael Branco, a former foreign minister, when Corallo's name came up. "You see the car he drives, the simple way he lives, the things he does for this country? Don't give us aid - give us ten clones of Corallo," said Branco.

In the gourmet chocolate industry, however, Corallo remains the quirky outsider and has yet to gain the recognition he feels his chocolate merits. (He claims never to have tasted any bar that can match his own.)

Martin Christy, editor of Seventypercent.com, a UK-based website for chocolate aficionados, describes Corallo's bars as "earthy, rough and ready, and interesting to try". But he says they have yet to equal the best chocolate made with non-forastero cocoa from South America, south-east Asia or Madagascar.

"The problem is the beans' genetics. Even with the best processing you might get a very good, cheeky chocolate, but not a great one."

Even so, Corallo's sales are growing, and reached about ?360,000 last year despite minimal marketing. Although he is designing a new website, and attends the occasional trade fair - usually the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris - it is always done grudgingly.

"The Salon is shit," he says. "But sometimes we have to make prostitutes out of ourselves."

Often, he is introduced to new markets through people approaching him after tasting his chocolate. He has recently opened up a market in Japan, after a woman from Tokyo tasted his chocolate on a visit to France.

When she contacted Corallo by email, he offered to send her some samples. Instead, she insisted on visiting him, flying from Japan to Lisbon to São Tomé, and finally taking the notoriously unreliable flight to Príncipe to see his plantation.

As she lay down to sleep in his plantation house the first night, she saw bats sweeping through the open windows. "The air makes circulation, the bats make circulation," says Corallo. "Very acrobatic."

The following night she booked herself into a hotel.

The culture shock was reversed when Corallo visited Tokyo last year. On his first day he lifted the toilet seat only to find instructions on how to warm the seat. "The energy to do that. Crazy!"

Chloé Doutre-Roussel, a fine chocolate expert, first introduced Corallo's bars to Britain when she was at Fortnum & Mason. She has visited São Tomé several times. She agrees with Christy's view that the chocolate is good, although not the finest. However, she admires his tenacity - and his honesty. Some chocolate-makers concoct less-than-truthful stories about the origins of their beans and the degree of care taken in production. Corallo, on the other hand, refuses to use positive labels he might easily adopt, such as "organic" and "slow food".

"He is the complete opposite of the sharks that use marketing to fool customers into buying their chocolate," says Doutre-Roussel. "He is in his own world, conducting this experiment with a wonderful obsession."

But an obsession can be draining. One evening, Corallo told me that for the first time in years he was feeling exhausted. Last year he and Bettina were divorced. She still handles the distribution side of the business from Lisbon, where she now lives with Ricciarda, but her absence is keenly felt.

After Bettina left, Corallo asked Niccoló, now a tall, mild-mannered 19-year-old, to postpone his final year of schooling to help him manage the business. It is not something he is proud of.

"I am now the number one for child labour - my own son," he says. "But without Niccoló I could not do this."

Later that night, when he took Niccoló and his younger son, Amedeo, 14, out to dinner at a seafront restaurant, Corallo perked up, excitedly picking out the Big Dipper in the sequinned sky.

He talked about the future. He aims to source more of his ingredients locally, which should help the other farmers on Príncipe. Already he has got some of them growing ginger, and he hopes to get cane sugar from them, too.

If that happens, he might try to make rum. Exporting smoked fish is another option. In a few years, if things improve in Congo, he might even be able to spend part of his time on his old coffee farm in Lomela, close to the jungle of his childhood dreams.

As he says, "My heart belongs in the middle of the forest."

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. His "Letter from Côte d'Ivoire" was published in our issue of 27 October 2008