The village of Mijas is what Spanish fairy tales are made of. Pretty white houses, clustered around sunny squares, are adorned with bright red geraniums at every window and narrow cobbled streets echo to the sounds of trotting donkeys and horse drawn carriages.
We are here to visit Eli McCarthy, owner of the world’s prettiest, perkiest and most petite chocolate factory in the world – Mayan Monkey. It is so impressive in fact that the BBC visited at the beginning of the year, something that has made Eli a bit of a local celeb.
I join the throng of customers inside her shop and watch as she enthuses over each individual chocolate on display, all handmade by her and her team, explaining to her captive audience the story behind their unique designs and the origins of their centres. They are all as temptingly gorgeous on the outside as the inside. The scent of caramel in the air, combined with the hypnotic rise and fall of her Irish intonations and her radiant smile, leaves us all gazing at her in enchantment. Then she spots Jeremy and me and the spell is broken. Although luckily for us we get to sit in the sunshine at one of the shop’s café tables, a handpicked selection of chocolates before us, and find out why Eli is the talk of the town.
First thing’s first, how on earth has she remained so slim and pretty when she spends all day surrounded by chocolate?
‘Oh no!’ she exclaims, ‘chocolate isn’t fattening. It can actually help you lose weight.’ I hold my breath, if she has made a bar of chocolate that will help women lose weight then I am about to make history. ‘What people don’t realise is that cocoa, in its purest form, is really energising and an appetite suppressant,’ she explains. ‘The Mayans would give it to the soldiers before battle, the higher the cocoa percentage the better quality it is. It’s the added milk and sugar that makes it less healthy. It was actually the Swiss in the late 1800s that first came up with the idea of adding milk to chocolate, and Fry’s chocolate factory invented the chocolate bar in 1847, because up until then 95% of chocolate consumption had been as a drink.’
Eli is a bubbling fountain of chocolate knowledge and her enthusiasm is as addictive as the products in her store. Dozens of brightly coloured gift bags of intriguingly flavoured chocolate hang like tree decorations in pretty rows. An array of exotic coffees and teas line her shelves and local wines stand dutifully along one wall. A continuous stream of molten silky chocolate pours from a tap behind the counter, and beside the glass display cabinet of gem-like truffles and bonbons are tubs of glistening (handmade and locally produced of course) ice cream. It’s a shop of decadent vices for the tastefully indulgent and worldly-wise, a mecca for the naughty child within.
So how did this once Software Consultant from South West Ireland become the Costa Queen of Cocoa?
‘I came to Spain thirteen years ago and lived in and around Barcelona doing all sorts – interpreting, massage, music – then four years ago I came to Marbella to help a friend run her company on the coast and I met my partner Jason. Together we decided to set up a business, we loved Mijas and after a lot of crazy ideas (all too embarrassing to share with CtC apparently – Ed) we settled on opening a chocolate shop after being inspired by one we visited in the Alpujarras. Because, let’s face it, who hasn’t dreamed of owning their own chocolate factory!’
We head upstairs to where the action takes place and where children (and big kids alike) can attend her workshops. Don’t expect a Willy Wonka wonder world of edible grass and chocolate waterfalls. There’s no magical lift or golden tickets, but I was very pleased to see that in the absence of singing Oompa Loompas there’s Eli’s sexy Latino colleague who is in serious competition with the chocolate for getting the ladies hot and flustered. This mini factory isn’t about candy-coated magic or brightly coloured fluff, this is the real thing… seriously wholesome proper chocolate making happens here and we are about to get a demonstration.
Eli is making one of her favourite chocolates named after Ixchel the Mayan fertility Goddess. It has a 99% pure ganache centre and into each hollow she sprinkles a selection of superfoods including sesame, poppy and sunflower seeds, along with dried aloe vera and cranberries, with nothing but honey to sweeten it. After letting it set in the fridge for a few minutes we get to taste it.
The experience is intense.
The bitterness of the dark chocolate kicks against the smooth richness of the honey, and the chewiness of the berries contrasts with the crunch of the seeds. My mouth is in shock, the flavours are still lapping against my palette a long while after I have finished.
I learn that good quality chocolate contains high levels of natural Serotonin and Phenylethylamine, feel good hormones associated with sexual pleasure, which explains why a little bite has had a big impact – and I promise it had nothing to do with the dark smouldering guy in the apron beside us.
Eli taste tests all her products, and now I understand why she is always smiling!
In fact she has a lot to be happy about as later in the year a new Mayan Monkey store is opening in Mija’s main square, which promises to be bigger and better. Not only will it have a larger shop and factory, but there will be a chocolate museum and a Chocodigital experience where visitors will see themselves morph into the original discoverer of chocolate (and the shop’s namesake) – a spider monkey.
Chocolate is big news and heading in the same direction as wine. Consumers are becoming more interested in the best harvest years, the beans’ origins and planting methods. So if I am to start my own private collection I better brush up on some chocofacts. For instance, did you know…
– There are three variety of cocoa bean; Criollo (the rarest and most expensive type of cocoa with the a complex layered flavour), Forastero (the bean that most industrial chocolate is made from with a simpler taste) and Trinitario (originally from Trinidad and is a natural hybrid of the two).
– Although Columbus dismissed the cocoa beans as being too bitter to bring back with him, it finally entered Europe via Spain’s main port of Cadiz in 1519 by ‘El Conquistador’ Hernán Cortés
– The Spanish refer to the beans as ‘almonds’ on account of their shape, and the word Chocolate entered the English language via the Spanish
– The Mayans and Aztecs used to mix chili with chocolate to make their bitter drink…and it’s still a popular combination, if the sales of Mayan Monkey’s products are anything to go by.
Back down in the shop a new crowd of visitors has entered and Eli greets each one as if they were long lost friends, chatting animatedly with every customer in their own language (she speaks seven languages in total, is there anything this woman can’t do?).
As we head for the door we spot a carved Mayan God covered in chocolate.
‘This was brought back as a gift from South America by one of our customers,’ she explains. ‘We place a sacrificial chocolate heart on it every day as an offering.’
So there you have it, it seems chocolate can make you slimmer, healthier, cleverer, happier, sexier and – if the Mayan God works – luckier. Well Eli, you certainly melted our hearts!