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Cacao-nib, Coriander, Coconut & Chilli Crusted Salmon


Chocolate in combination with savoury food is seriously underrated and not common in my homeland, Australia. Cacao has been used for a very long time in savoury dishes in the homelands of Central America however (think bubbling pots of Mexican Molé sauce served with turkey or chicken). It’s fairly unusual to see it making a guest appearance outside the dessert menu, let alone having a starring role as a flavourful ingredient on our savoury menus.

I recently had a brief but very exciting visit to Hotel Chocolat on the island of Saint Lucia in the West Indies (some pics at end of post), and I was taken aback by their diverse use of chocolate in savoury cooking. Being situated amongst cacao plantations with a constant supply of fresh cacao pulp and beans fermented and dried to their liking certainly helps of course.

The hotel is literally plonked amongst thriving cacao plantations. The island’s oldest cacao plantation included, Rabot Estate. The stunning view of the acutely angled Grose Piton Mountain from the open-air deck (roof but no walls) is nothing less than striking, especially at sunrise and sunset. This area houses the reception, restaurant/bar lounge and a continually churning chocolate melanger, quietly grinding liquid chocolate, sending an aroma into the air that is seriously intoxicating. The balcony restaurant overhangs a sultry dark swimming pool for in-house guests, where the view is just as mind blowing. I fell into such an exhausted, jet-lagged induced, deep sleep by this pool one afternoon I'm pretty sure the pool attendant thought I was dead. She looked incredibly relieved when I awoke, albeit looking like a red, fat cheeked sweaty baby, dazed after my epic journey to travel there, and a long nap. I woke with the full force of the tropical sun on my face, which had moved directly onto me as I slept. One of the best sleeps I've ever had.

But lets get back to the cacao. I was like a kid in a candy shop. Where the candy shop is a tropical jungle.

I’ve visited lots of cacao plantations, in locations including Central America, the Caribbean (Dominican Republic and Cuba), Africa, Hawaii and Vanuatu, so it wasn’t like the first time I’ve had this experience. But I’ve never had a sleepover. And it was the seriously the best.

I awoke super early each morning (thanks Jetlag, for the first time ever), and waited for daylight to break so I could run through the plantations in solitude. I got to quietly converse with the mysterious cacao trees, explore the different types of jewel coloured pods which house the magic beans and smell the sweet and sour aromas coming from the fresh beans fermenting in the processing area, where I’m pretty sure I probably wasn’t supposed to be. I didn't touch anything, I promise.

Being a passionate supporter of fair and ethical trade, I also loved their ethical exchange programme with island growers, and they’re making a real difference to the livelihood of local farmers, their families and employees.

Soooo, back to Hotel Chocolat’s use of chocolate in savoury recipes. From chocolate paste on toast for breakfast, thru cacao gazpacho, cacao marinated chicken, creole/cacao spiced fish and cacao beer jerked pork … they have it covered. In chocolate. They have recently published a book a ‘A New Way of Cooking with Chocolate’ (2015, Headline Publishing Group), which is brimming with innovative ways to use chocolate in savoury dishes, and if this interests you, I’d recommend you take a look at the book. Most of the recipes use cacao nibs (the dried cacao bean once shelled of the husk), but others like Dark Chocolate Ragu include dark chocolate as an ingredient.

So my recommendation is don’t freak out at the thought of chocolate as an ingredient with savoury food … it’s not about making savoury food taste sweet and chocolaty, it’s about adding an earthy depth of flavour to a dish, that is generally indistinguishable as chocolate (especially when using nibs as they’re sans the sugar or using very high percentage chocolate which often has a lot of savoury notes rather than sweet). Dropping a very small piece of a very dark chocolate (I’m talking at least 85%, and preferably 100%) into a mushroom risotto, or a red wine jus gives a really interesting, deep complexity to the flavour profile, and used in a balanced fashion, doesn’t make the dish taste like chocolate. Use it sparingly though, and towards the end of the cooking. I guess it’s a little like using anchovies sparingly and secretly …. they add a depth of flavour without the dish tasting like anchovy.

The following recipe for ‘Crusted Salmon’ is inspired by Hotel Chocolat’s Chilli Crusted Salmon recipe, where they use a fantastic Spiced Chilli Chocolate Glaze made with jerk seasoning.

The addition of cacao nibs makes not only a textural difference in my recipe, but adds a surprisingly hearty earthiness to the dish which seems to make it more substantial and filling … yet the flavours remain sharp ... let me know what you think!


For a print friendly recipe print here!


Serves 4

(4 x 150g pieces of salmon or 2 x large 300g fillets)

1 cup panko breadcrumbs (or white stale bread, crusts removed, crumbed in food processor)

1 handful of coriander leaves

1 garlic clove, peeled

1 small red chilli, seeds removed if you prefer, and finely chopped

½ lime - juice and finely grated zest

1 teaspoon paprika

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

sea salt and cracked black pepper

1 tablespoon roasted cacao nibs

1 tablespoon flaked dried coconut

1/4 cup whole egg mayonnaise


Place everything except the mayonnaise in a food processor and blend.

Place the salmon fillets portions, skin side down (if they still have skin on), on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon on and spread a thin even layer of mayonnaise over salmon fillets (this will help the crust stick to the salmon)

Spread combined breadcrumb/cacao nib mixture over the top of the salmon fillets, pressing down. Give an extra fine drizzle of olive oil if you think it needs it.

Cook in pre-heated oven at 200 C, for around 15mins, until the salmon is flaky and cooked to your liking.

Serve with a wedge of fresh lime to squeeze over and accompany with whatever you like to serve salmon with …. salad greens with spring onions and coriander lightly dressed, blanched beans, snow peas, noodles, new potatoes … or as we recently enjoyed …. directly from the baking tray straight out of the oven like animals (we also put chopped red capsicum on the tray, seasoned and drizzled with olive oil).

Disclaimer: We were using up some fresh salmon and capsicum before driving into the night to start a holiday … we were anxious to leave, had been at a fund raising event that served teensy weensy portions of mini food, and were ravenously hungry. It felt very Game of Thrones to be honest, which was pretty exciting. Don’t judge us, you know nothing Jon Snow.


Go nuts: Add ¼ cup of chopped walnuts, peanuts or pecans to the recipe for another interesting texture/flavour

Pasta crumb: Cook bread crumb/cacao nib mixture on baking tray alone, for 10 minutes or until crunchy. Serve sprinkled over and stirred through freshly cooked spaghetti, that has been seasoned and tossed with extra virgin olive oil. Add chicken if you like.


Some pics of the hotel & the cacao plantations!

View of Piton from the restaurant deck (above) .... and the dining area of the restaurant deck, where the design of the posts holding the roof are inspired by cacao trees! (below)

Pool area (above)

Cacao trees, pods and the giant leaves .... above and below

The amazing little buds of the cacao tree, where it all starts! These tiny buds explode into a tiny flower and when fertilised become a cacao pod ... which takes 6 months to mature to ripeness.

Very serious business! I'm concentrating as I learn how to graft a cacao tree onto a a trunk that is a couple of years old, which helps the tree mature and bear fruit a few years earlier than if it was planted from seed.

The inside of the cacao pod ... the magical beans are covered in mucilage that is very sweet ... but the beans are inedible at this stage, and taste nothing like chocolate ... they're awful! ( below)



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