Cacao nibs

Categories: Product of the week

Why cacao nibs can be used for much more than just making chocolate

“The cacao nib comes from the cacao bean. If you press the bean, crack it open and remove the shell, what you are left with is the nib,” explains David Demaison, development chef at Rabot 1745. “It’s an amazing product and comes from a very sensitive tree. Its growing conditions are very specific.”

Specific indeed—the cacao nib is fussier than a pinot noir grape, requiring temperatures of at least 25C, and only growing 20 degrees above and below the equator. It needs to be shaded “or they tend to burn”, you cannot use pesticides—“it would just die!”—and the beans are harvested by hand.

Most of the cacao beans at Rabot 1745 come from the Estate’s plantation in Soufriere, Saint Lucia, where, thanks to its proximity to the equator, they can be harvested year-round. Once picked, the beans are fermented naturally.

Cocktails and sorbets
“At the touch of air, the white pulp—which we use in cocktails and sorbets at the restaurant—begins to oxidise and create heat,” David continues. “They are rested on wooden trays where the temperature rises naturally.”

The beans are then dried on long wooden trays in the sun before being shipped over to the shop on Bedale Street—“there’s no time in a warehouse, so they’re as fresh as they get”—where they are roasted on site. The bean is then cracked, and a ‘winnower’ is used to separate the nib from the shell.

The shells are used for infusions “to make a proper, refreshing tea”; the nibs kept whole or conched (the process that makes them into chocolate) to make a liqueur for use in cooking, as well as the chocolate you’ll find on the shop shelves.

Sweet and savoury
“Eighty per cent of dishes on our menu use cacao nibs,” says David. This is true of both sweet and savoury dishes. “The nibs are not sweet—there is no sugar in them at all,” David explains. “They add a depth of flavour to the dish without sweetening it or changing its colour.”

In fact, it’s only in the past 350 years or so that the cacao nib has been used to make sweet confectionary. “Before that, the Mayans and the Aztecs used to eat it raw all day long. It’s an extremely nutritious, savoury product.”

There are three main types of cacao bean: criollo, trinitario and forastero. Each has its own a unique flavour. “The ones we use have a very nutty, woody flavour,” David explains. “Others can be more floral, citrusy. We have to make sure the nibs complement the dish and find the right balance.”

A bit funky
Cacao nibs can be crushed and sprinkled on top of dishes, or combined with oil and used as a marinade. “We use it to marinate white fish, for example, or steak,” he continues. Try adding some next time you have roast lamb, as in this slow roast shoulder of lamb with cacao nibs recipe, or grated on top of salads such as this roasted rainbow vegetable salad with puy lentils and goat’s cheese. David suggests using a grinder to add a little bit at a time, to make the dish “a bit funky”. 

If you’re planning a dinner in advance, David suggests making a risotto and infusing the rice with cacao nibs ahead of time. “Take three or four nibs, put them in a jar and top it all up with rice. Seal it and leave it in the fridge for a week,” he says.

“The rice will start to take the flavour of the cacao. It’s a very smart way to use the product.” Once you have an understanding of its flavour and uses, it’s just a case of experimenting. “You can’t really go wrong—just make sure the nibs don’t burn!”