IN 1800, it might have taken days for the French aristocrat Charles Joseph Comte Loppinot de la Fresillier, to make his way deep into the Lopinot Valley that carries his name (although the spelling lost one “p” over the years or along the way).
Today, for a good driver comfortable with seemingly interminable hairpin bends, it takes at least half an hour to cover the nine kilometres–a distance of about three times around the Queen’s Park Savannah–from Arouca to the site of the historical Lopinot Complex. Often, the less sturdy of constitutions wonders if anything could really be worth the zigzagging drive along the narrow road.
“You have to do something really magical to get people into Lopinot,” says Marcia Guerrero, primus inter PR, if not inter pares, of the restaurant’s proprietor chefs. The Café Mariposa menu is as magical as food gets.
Run by four sisters and one brother, Café Mariposa serves a wide range of self-invented dishes, all including either Café Mariposa’s own homemade 70 per cent cocoa dark chocolate or the famously flavourful Trinitario cocoa beans of the Lopinot Valley. From the cocoa lentil turmeric soup through the chocolate lamb, chocolate chicken, chocolate fish or chocolate pork main courses to “Lizzie’s pink Himalayan salted caramel ice cream,” everything’s got chocolate in it or on it.
The Guerrero family name literally translates into “warrior” in the Spanish and the siblings–lone brother Arthur and sisters Brenda, Marcia, Bianca and Hyacinth–literally and figuratively fight the good fight for food. (Margot, the principal of St Joseph’s Convent, St Joseph, will join her siblings on her retirement next year, while sisters Gail and Gillian found non-food niches of their own in Los Angeles and Caribbean Airlines respectively.)
But the notion of war, or any kind of struggle, is alien at Café Mariposa. Even without the soothing cup of cocoa tea served to visitors on arrival, the café’s lush gardens banish the memory of the drive. After all that winding comes considerably more unwinding.
They’ve got an alcoholic drink for that, too, at Café Mariposa. The chocolate ponche de crème may land on its feet at this time of year more readily than the cocoa sangria–but the sangria’s longer legs will carry it all year round.
Café Mariposa’s “brown skin girl” (cocoa, pommecythere juice and vodka) won third prize at the World Cocoa & Coffee Day competition at the University of the West Indies in 2016, but the punch Mariposa and the cocoa panyol (hot chocolate heavily laced with Angostura White Oak rum) are nothing to sneeze at, either.
The food and drink of Café Mariposa have been deliberately designed to maximise available advantages–fresh seasonal produce, Lopinot cocoa beans, homegrown or locally sourced ingredients–but the café itself started almost accidentally.
After the seven Guerrero sisters won the Cynthia Alfred Cup in the family category in the 1984 Music Festival, people from all around would drop in casually at the family home, where the restaurant is housed today, just to hear them sing. Their father, Benedict, renowned for his own hospitality as much as his daughters’ voices, insisted on serving visitors food and drink. The sisters would first sing and then cook for guests, preparing the dishes they learned from their mother, Hildred (who, aged 83, still shells cocoa by hand in the café’s kitchen).
In 2001, Bianca returned from Venezuela to find her sisters “still giving everything away” and, with brother Arthur, promptly made the café a business. Since January 2011, Marcia has been the main creative force behind the cocoa or chocolate-based or inspired dishes. There is no accident in that.
“To add cocoa to food is a heck of a balance,” says Marcia. “You can’t just throw it in the pot.”
Painstaking trial and error leads eventually to the right proportions–but the dishes, such as the chocolate pigtails, do then tend to reward their creators with awards: the café has won 12 dish or drink prizes in the last seven years.
Initially, the rest of the family assessed Marcia’s approach, teasingly, as: “Auntie Marcia putting chocolate and cocoa in everything.”
The tone in which that comment was made changed from joking to seriously appreciative, however, when Marcia won two first prizes at the World Cocoa & Coffee Day at UWI in 2011, one for her gluten-free molten lava chocolate cake, and the other for her batido de cacao drink. (Marcia actually intended to enter two dishes in the dessert category but, serendipitously, without refrigeration at the competition venue, her chocolate ice cream melted. She borrowed four champagne flutes, garnished with cinnamon sticks, stuck in four straws…and won first prize in the beverages category!)
Persuaded and encouraged, Brenda and Hyacinth began inventing their own delicious–and prize-winning–menu items and the chocolate foundation was made solid.
Today, Hyacinth is Café Mariposa’s chocolate chef, while Brenda and Marcia are the main ones “putting chocolate and cocoa in everything.”
Nothing that comes out of the kitchen at Café Mariposa comes out of a packet. What isn’t picked fresh in the Guerrero family’s own kitchen garden is purchased as locally as possible, with most inputs coming from Lopinot Village itself.
Indeed, the menu is so fresh and seasonal, it isn’t even written until the day starts and the chefs know what they have to work with. Book a table at Café Mariposa and they’ll WhatsApp or e-mail you that day’s bill of fare.
Usually, though, after the cocoa tea palate-arouser, appetisers are hand-cooked Lopinot sweet potato, cassava and breadfruit fries served with a dark chocolate dipping sauce and/or pommecythere chutney.
Several of the dishes following have won a prize for taste and almost all score well on the health index, based, as they are, on anti-oxidant-rich cocoa and dark chocolate.
The menu unequivocally reaches fine-dining standards and even the most rustic aspects of the restaurant’s ambience enhance the dining experience. Scores of hummingbirds dart about the feeders hanging around the edges of the verandah dining room–there are 11 separate species, ranging from the ruby topaz through the white-collared Jacobin to the blue-chinned sapphire; and hours may pass without the sound of an engine being heard.
The sounds that do fill the air are sweetly pleasant to the ear. As young girls, the Guerrero sisters first sang to, and then fed, their guests; today, they feed their guests and then sing to them. After the meal, if you’re lucky, the family will gather as a choir on the verandah.
A family business, Café Mariposa is about family as much as business, and almost everyone under the roof is related. The young waiter plucking the box bass, for instance, is Ayinde Bereaux, a nephew; Brandon Huggins, Hyacinth’s son, plays the maracas when he’s not serving the meals.
Just eating chocolate is heavenly; eating a full fine-dining meal based on chocolate is even better. Having a chorus of beautiful voices sing to you afterwards is as close to paradise as the down-to-earth senses get.
The singing harmony of the Guerrero sisters is the foundation of the culinary harmony of the Café Mariposa. You can hear it in your ear and you can taste it in the food.
The danger of the Café Mariposa is that of the Hotel California: with four en-suite bedrooms available above the dining room, like the Comte de Lopinot, you may never leave.