When embarking on an international chocolate adventure across the Americas, what better place to start than Chocolateria Isla Bella, or The Chocolate Kitchen, situated on 5th Avenue, on the stunning island of Cozumel, Mexico?
This is the story of two women’s journey to preserve the ancient cacao of Mexico and bring it to the fore in the Yucatan, Quintana Roo peninsula of Mexico; from the bean, to the bar – hand tempering every batch they make!
Founded by a mother-daughter team Megan and Isabella 6 years ago, after several tough knocks they set it upon themselves to start a chocolate shop and have never looked back. What the pair have done, with little to no funding, in a place known for its cacao, but not its chocolate shops, is quite frankly remarkable. On entering the shop we were greeted with the warmest welcome that wouldn’t be out of place with life long friends, and after the formalities of hugs had been distributed it was time to start on the chocolate tasting
First up in the tasting is their 70% fresh cream ganache – the perfect opener for our pallets; a rich dark ganache, with all the deep, velvety cocoa notes typical of Mexican cacao, giving way to toasted caramel and coffee notes at the end. Deceptively light in colour, one could almost be fooled to thinking it was a milk chocolate – such is the magic of these ladies chocolate skills, and a perfect introduction to the dark side, for any of you who would normally home in on a milk chocolate. This fresh cream ganache makes a base for many of their dark chocolate truffles, including (drumroll please) their chilli and mango truffle which features a delectable juicy chunk of mango in the centre, and a warming kick of Mexican chilli pepper, hiding within the rich velvety dark chocolate ganache. Another truffle, again featuring this dark ganache is their mezcal truffle, which really brings to the fore subtle notes of rum and raisin, not traditional of Mexican cacao, but a welcome surprise indeed, and no alcohol burn in the mouth as they have just the right balance of alcohol and chocolate – a challenging feat to get right.
Keen to support their local community, Isabella and her mother Megan work only with local ingredients, their cacao coming exclusively from Mexico, more specifically from Tabasco and sometimes Chiapas. Cane sugar, and the cream in their ganache also comes from local producers. The same goes for their additional ingredients, as Megan explains; flavours and inclusions often change, depending on what they find in the market that day, for them there is a huge emphasis to work as close to 100% local as they can.
After having explored the dark velvety ganaches we are now directed towards the more solid form of chocolate, trying one of their best-selling products – Cacao Paste – inspired by the traditional Mexican drinking chocolate -xiocolatl, often blended with hot milk or water. Here the cacao is rough ground and blended with cane sugar before being formed into hard lumps or chunks to be dissolved in a cup of hot milk or water. But, in this case the savvy pair behind this joint have decided to mix in a little ground pecans and cinnamon to one batch, and ground almonds it the other; it was like the ultimate pancake condiment combo, only without the distraction of the pancake.
When I ask about how it tastes when blended with the milk, Megan hands me a chunk with a cheeky look in her eye, saying “I personally prefer to eat it, I think it’s a bit of a waste putting it with milk, there’s so much flavour just in these chunks” and oh boy, was she right. This delectable chunk really has captured the heart of that traditional Mexican cacao in just one bite.
A stream of customers flow into the shop, some of them regulars, some of them recent embarkees of the cruise ships that frequent this quaint little island. So my partner and I settle back and admire the deftness at which Isabella and her mum serve their customers – at speed, but ensuring each customer has their undivided attention throughout, to ensure the correct chocolates are chosen for everyone. Watching them dance about their shop advising, selecting, offering tasters you can feel that magical cacao vibe and really see that their oozing passion for what they do – sharing chocolate and making people happy.
As quickly as they had come, the flurry had dispersed and we were left just the four of us again. After our foray into the dark side of chocolate shortly before, it’s now time to explore the lighter side of chocolate. First up was the Lime chocolate, made with fresh squeezed juice of the finest Mexican limes (or ‘limons’ in Spanish). Now white chocolate is not normally a go to chocolate for me when visiting a craft or bespoke chocolate shop, but in this instance I must insist anyone visiting Chocolateria Isla Bella next on their travels has to have this lime chocolate, especially if you like lemon curd – it tastes just like it, or as Megan describes it “it tastes just like the island”.
When asked why they chose to work with Mexican cacao over all others they tell us they have always had an affinity with Mexico, Megan had studied Spanish at college and lived here, Isabella was born here, and shortly before setting up the shop they had moved back here, only to fall victim to a series of unfortunate events it. Isabella also excitedly points out that the dense virtually impenetrable jungle covering almost 95% of Cozumel is home to one of the worlds’ most extensive cave systems where ancient cacao is known to grow, and has grown for almost 1000 years – believed to be as a result of the rituals the Maya once carried out at these sites. The obvious solution to these two is to get to the cacao to begin cultivating it, but the problem is, given the jungle is virtually impassable, they need to work with a team of divers to help them find the cacao in the different caves and cenote pools on the island. And what then? Well, we’ll start our own plantation in Cozumel, getting plants from Tabasco for root stocks, and then growing it with the cacao on the island, we just need someone to test how cacao grows in a sea spray environment, and how it deals with the salt – well these are two women after my own heart!
Another wave of excited customers descended on the shop, and the pair are off again, effortlessly guiding through the myriad choices ensuring each customer left happy and no one left empty handed. With a brief moment to catch their breath, we asked them “What does chocolate mean to you”, they both looked at each other with the same sparkle in their eyes, as if there was some sort of lightning bolt of energy running through the air between them, and shouted “Happiness, chocolate means happiness to me” at exactly the same time, before bursting out in hysterics. The fact that chocolate can bring this much joy to people who have gone through so much, and just pushes them to want to share that joy with others is a real blessing, and the more people who set about discovering what chocolate really means to them, also begin to discover this for themselves. Chocolate, or more accurately cacao, for thousands of years has been a way of life for many indigenous cultures of the Americas; a way of communicating, connecting, and bringing others together, forming part of rituals, sacrifices and blessings. Now, in the modern world there is a resurgence of chocolate (and cacao) as a connector once again, and people in industry and passionate members of the public are beginning to see and feel this for themselves.
For those of you who do decide to take up this journey, of discovering what chocolate really means to you, or for those of you who just happen to find yourselves on a delightful holiday in the Yuctan/ Quintana Roo peninsula, well, you don’t really have any excuse now do you, I gave you the address at the start of this post.
Happy coco hunting! I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Photography (unless otherwise stated) courtesy of my ever supportive rock of a partner Sam, without whom I would be photographically lost.