Welcome to the Algarve’s alternative chocolate factory

Does making your own healthy chocolate alternative and learning about ingredients tantalise your tastebuds? Then Spice Life’s carob workshop may appeal to your appetite.

At a picturesque villa in Figueira, seven adults sit at a laden table. Open jars spill fragrant spices. Empty silver bowls reflect expectant faces. Pestle and mortars make us feel like children soon to play with their food.

Led by Shaira, “Carob Queen” and lifeforce behind Spice Life, the afternoon’s two-hour carob workshop is an opportunity to expand our knowledge of healthy eating. Shaira’s passion for food education and conscience-eating permeates the afternoon, inspiring us to look at food anew. When we ask her what her motivation is, she explains, “it’s because I am spice”.

Originally hailing from Suriname, teacher, socio-therapist and nurse Shaira’s ancestral mix owes itself to the former spice trade. Today, she believes in the importance of spices to bring people back in contact with nature, foods, culture, and history.

“I try to put people back to the source of all foods: where does it come from? And how does it grow?” said Shaira. The workshop was set to be both educational and empowering.

It began with an introduction to the carob, a long, brown, bean-like pod which grows abundantly in the Algarve. High in antioxidants and fibre, unlike cacao, carob contains no caffeine. The cacao bean’s crumbling, bitter texture is no competition for the sweeter, smoother flavour of the carob. Though lesser-used in contemporary cooking, Portugal’s native carob is certainly a sustainable alternative to cacao for Algarveans. Proving this point, the carob powder used in the workshop was hand-harvested by locals, along with Shaira, then milled at a nearby ‘cooperativa’.

Tip: watch out for carob pods in October but be sure to check for insects before you bite into the delicious pod.

Next, Shaira introduced us to the two other main ingredients: cacao butter and coconut oil. We sampled the smooth, melt-in-your-mouth cacao butter; the rich depth of coconut sugar; and observed the differences between scented and unscented coconut oil. As we tasted each, Shaira taught us of the benefits and impressed upon us the importance of quality.

“I work with as natural ingredients as possible,” she said, highlighting the importance of making healthy buying choices. To prove her point, she produced coconut butter handmade upon her grandparent’s farm in Suriname. This later went into the second, creamier carob mix.

Tip: When choosing your ingredients and to get closer to how we should be eating nature’s gifts, choose non-processed locally-sourced foods when you can.

Before putting everything into the pan, Shaira unveiled the treasure trove of spices we would use, according to our palette and wish, to flavour the carob. From the lemony-pamplemousse flavour of Szechuan pepper to the sweet smoked chipotle, this was going to be some chocolate.

Fun fact: In Sichuan, China, citizens eat Szechuan pepper before meals for its numbing effect so they can consume hot, spicy dishes.

Combining equal parts of the three essential ingredients – carob powder, cacao butter and coconut oil – in a saucepan over low heat, we watched the powder, butter and oil transform. To finish the mix, coconut blossom sugar and vanilla pods completed the rich liquid mix.

We were salivating. Shaira poured the dark brown liquid into our bowls. It was playtime. The alchemy of flavours commenced. Pinches of rose petals drizzled into the warm liquid. Ground cardamom and ginger sprinkled into moulds. An array of ingredients combined. Each tray completed, we let our sweets set while we worked on the second carob ‘chocolate’.

What was the end-product like? Once set, the carob alternative is visually indistinguishable from chocolate. We stood like connoisseurs sampling the flavours we’d concocted. My verdict? A tasty alternative to chocolate with the added zing of spice combinations creating a taste sensation.

Leaving the workshop, I reflected upon how Shaira’s passion illuminated what we overlook. Our desire for convenience has caused us to discard ancient wisdom. What we buy in supermarkets contains little of the nutrients rich in nature’s bounty while other products have been re-packaged, marketed as superfoods at unnatural prices. We forget the human cost in food manufacturing, too.

From my perspective, the workshop proved that what we buy in shiny plastic packages, we also have the ability to harvest from nature and to make for ourselves. Given the benefits of doing so, why not do it? Come October, when the carob pods are on the trees, I’ll be there collecting and drying then milling at my local ‘cooperativa’. See you there?

For more information on Shaira’s educational and enlightening workshops in locations around the Algarve (fermenting; spice and cook; carob; and kids fermenting; plus her new four-day yoga and food retreat, October 28-31), visit www.spicelifeshop.com



Shaira, the carob queen