Chocolatier Eric Gilbert pairs chocolates and wines at Grimal Grove
Cacao trees, a tree that produces the pods which hold the seeds to chocolate, are usually only found 20 degrees north and south of the equator. So the discovery of a flowering and fruiting tree on Big Pine Key at Grimal Grove, 24.5 degrees north of the equator, is an exciting find. (It may be one of just a handful in the continental United States.) The recently rehabilitated hosted a seminar on choosing healthy and sustainable chocolate since “eating chocolate sets off the same mental feeling as being in love and being happy.” Spoiler alert: confections with 70 percent dark chocolate or more is the best for health reasons, and white chocolate has no health benefits because it doesn’t use the cacao bean.
Chocolatier Eric Gilbert pairs wines and chocolates with friend and Grimal Grove manager Patrick Garvey. They have known each other since their 20s, and worked in Ecuador together with Growing Hope Initiative documenting the cacao trade in the area.
Volunteer Michelle Baldovin creates strawberry jam with Redland strawberries. The class taught attendees how to preserve fruit. She is planning another class when the Grimal Grove mangos are ripe.
Yoga instructors Jolie Wilson and Sara Snitkoff learn about the chocolate process. Chocolate shops are popping up across the county like microbreweries. Right now, all the beans are imported into the United States.
Guests at Grimal Grove inspect a Sri Lankan weevil, a small pest devouring the cacao tress on the Big Pine Key property. Gilbert brought in more cacao trees to cross pollinate with the one tree they found on the property when they started clearing the invasive trees. Staff is devising eco-friendly ways to end the evil weevil.
Gilbert is hand pollinating the cacao buds. Gilbert became interested in chocolate when his father opened a chocolate shop when he was 11 years old.
Cacao literally means fruit of the Gods. ‘It’s like watching a baby being born,’ said chocolate lover Marie Geranian about the seed, and who wanted to know more about the process.
Each pod carries 30 to 50 beans and to make chocolate. The beans are fermented, roasted, ground and turned into paste. ‘The whole process is pretty incredible,’ said Gilbert.