April 2018

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One of life’s greatest joys, especially if it is cold, or if you’re feeling miserable and in urgent need of a pick-me-up, is a lovely large comforting mug of hot chocolate. A stress-buster like no other, there’s just something about the taste that can make your eyelids lower, your toes curl, and your emotions bliss out in an unaccountable surge of wellbeing.

At the end of the working week, those in the know are popping over on Friday mornings to The UWI’s Frank Stockdale building in St. Augustine to get their hit of delicious hot chocolate, or as we in the Caribbean call it, “cocoa-tea”. Every Friday from mid-morning there is cocoa-tea on offer, as well as a few chocolate treats, in the relaxing ambience of the building’s foyer, just in front of the Cocoa Research Centre. You can also get chilled cocoa-tea.

Get there and you’ll be greeted by the smile of Mrs. Lyris Hazard-Wilson, the person mixing and selling the cocoa-tea in the traditional way her mother used to make. The cocoa-tea base itself is a special mix created by the Cocoa Research Centre, derived from its own cocoa beans and its longstanding research into making fine flavours.

When I tasted the cocoa-tea, it had an earthy, sweet taste to it, balanced and very satisfying, with just a hint of spice. It went down smoothly, with the traditional cocoa oils swirling slightly at the top. To my untutored palate, the taste was more subtle and delicious than many leading foreign brands of drinking chocolate, which can taste vapid and overly sweet by comparison: many commercial blends actually use far less of the cocoa’s nutritional goodness (contained in the oils) and add a great deal of sugar, corn syrup and vegetable oils. Not so with this CRC blend.

Drinkable chocolate has been used for years to treat maladies: and it’s not just old wive’s tales. Antioxidants in chocolate are said to help prevent cancer, heart disease, age-related macular degeneration and aging in general because they fight free radicals in the body. According to a 2003 study conducted at Cornell University, the antioxidant concentration in hot cocoa is almost twice as strong as red wine. Cocoa's concentration was found to be two to three times stronger than that of green tea and four to five times stronger than that of black tea. Professor Chang Yong Lee, the leader of the Cornell study, added that the "hot" in "hot chocolate" is important as well. More antioxidants are released when it's heated up, reported Melissa Breyer writing in the November 2012 online issue of The Mother Nature Network (https://www.mnn.com).

Citing the study, she went on to note that a cup of hot cocoa contains 611 milligrams of the phenolic compound gallic acid equivalents (GAE) and 564 milligrams of the flavonoid epicatechin equivalents (ECE). The antioxidant gallic acid is used to treat internal hemorrhages, albuminuria and diabetes. Although a regular bar of chocolate has strong antioxidant activity, the health benefits may be outweighed because of the saturated fats present — cocoa generally has much less fat per serving compared to the 8 grams of fat in a standard chocolate bar. And the flavonoids help your body process nitric oxide, which is why hot cocoa can improve blood flow, help lower your blood pressure and improve heart health.

Lyris, a caretaker at the CRC building, enjoys making the cocoa-tea on Fridays to help promote the Centre’s activities. She has worked at The UWI for 23 years, and of that time, worked 19 years for the Faculty of Agriculture, before coming to the CRC four years ago.

She says she loves working near agricultural researchers because of what they do: “the nature of working with creation” appeals to her. She remembers being inspired by the “cocoa dream” from a speech she heard at The UWI many years ago.

“I used to make cocoa-tea for my kids from small. We got cocoa-tea from Grenada in balls, and we would grate it. We would grate about a fist-roundness of the cocoa-ball, put it to boil, and add bay leaf, spice, nutmeg, condensed milk and a bit of evaporated milk into the boiling cocoa. We would get about 10-15 cups of tea from that.”

That smelled beautiful on a morning, and was a traditional Christmas drink, she remembers: “You can’t have Christmas breakfast without that cocoa-tea.”

“Wow! There is always that pleasure in the eyes when you feel the taste of cocoa-tea. There is a smooth taste; it’s a different, stronger cocoa taste. Even before you add other things to your own cocoa-tea, you could smell the cocoa itself.”

Lyris learned to make cocoa-tea as a ten-year-old from her mother: it was part of their tradition from home, living in Paget in the east. About her mother, she recalls: “She loved food, she loved cooking. I was always interested in being around her and learning.”

“We make cocoa-tea for every guest who passes through the Cocoa Research Centre,” says Lyris. Then members of other departments began asking for cocoa-tea for their own conferences. Then just about a month ago, the CRC decided to start “Fridays with CRC.”

I was lucky last Friday to sample not only the cocoa-tea but also a scrumptious blackberry chocolate ganache treat on sale, made by cocoa researcher Naailah Ali.

I share an anecdote about a chocolatier called Rosemary from 20 years ago, who once told me: “Chocolate is full of love!” Lyris smiles.

“I love people. I love bringing pleasure to people’s faces. Cocoa-tea does that! And you know they say that charity begins at home. No matter how much cocoa-tea I make here, it is never enough! People come and ask for some, students and their friends… You know, love goes a long way.”