Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, February 25, 2011

What Trinidad is to cocoa!

On the few occasions when my mother made "creole cocoa" for us when we were kids, it was a supper treat- instead of dinner. The recipe was mysterious. The thick chocolate arrived to the table in our old-fashioned jade coloured Chinese bowls (I"ve searched for these since childhood and not found any shaped just so). There might be a slick of cocoa butter on top, and we had to stir constantly to keep the cocoa from settling in between sips of the heated brew. On the side, we had a hot hops bread. It was enough to fill our little tummies and send us to dreamland, straight.

Later on, I saw the cocoa balls and rolls being sold by the specialist spice vendors in the market, alongside sticks of fragrant cinnamon, nutmegs, cloves, mauby bark and  aniseed. And when we moved to Santa Cruz, a broad and fertile river valley originally developed for cocoa estates, it was to be surrounded by old cocoa estates, the trees kept low with their big leaves, and large pods hanging off the trunk and lower branches under the shade of towering immortelles.

That was a time when most Trinis grew up knowing that cocoa and coffee were important staple crops. But not any more.
Old cocoa trees still producing in Brasso Seco
Did you know, for instance, that the current world production of cocoa and chocolate today, is the result of propagation from cocoa reseach in Trinidad that began a hundred or so years ago? About 80 percent of the world production of cocoa comes from Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast) and South East Asia. But their plantations grew from trees developed in Trinidad, through the work of the College of Imperial Science (subsumed into the University of the West Indies at our independence) at St Augustine. The Cocoa Research Unit (CRU) still resides in this place contiuing the work of that College.

Did you know that Trinidad continues to be the centre for cocoa research to this dayi? In the early days, and by traditional methods of cross-fertilization and culling, Trinitario cocoa was developed. It is a cross of the flavourful Criollo and more disease resistant Forestero (from Amazonian and central South American rain forests). Trinitario is widespread in South East Asia.

In the early 1980s, with foresight rarely demonstrated before or since, the Cocoa Research Unit collected a living gene bank of cocoa. Today, 2400 cocoa varieties grow on about 50 hectares in La Reunion on the bank of the Caroni. This has been designated the International Cocoa Gene Bank - the only complete collection of its kind in the world and a priceless world resource. It includes cocoa from Ecuador, Surinam, Venezuela and countries of the Amazon. For the past 20 or so years, research on cocoa has proceeded ihere n the traditional way.  Recently, however, technology developed in human genome mapping has been applied to plants and our cocoa trees. The DNA of cocoa has been mapped. This breakthrough allows more scientific creation of new strains for higher yields and flavours.

While the results of research conducted at CRU benefit a dwindling local industry, it is of enormous significance to the rest of the world. Chocolate is an international commodity, but the development of high-end exquisite flavour chocolate continues to be based on production in a small area. Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia, Dominica, Jamaica and Grenada are among a handful of producers of fine flavour cocoa. In 2010, Trinidad and Tobago beans from two estates - one the government station at La Reunion and another private estate in the Montserrat hils - received the first place certificates for Fruity and Floral flavours in the world-wide taste tests held in France.

If only, says Professor Pathmanathan Umaharan, director of the CRU, we knew what Trinidad is to cocoa!


  1. I picked up as I was growing up that our cocoa was highly rated for its flavour, and remember Granny Nunez's hot cocoa drinks, but didn't realize we have the CRU. Years ago we bought an old cocoa estate, El Brasso, in the Monserrat Hills, but with the demands of Sharc, we never redeveloped it - shame!

  2. Tell us about the crazy system whereby our cocoa farmers must sell their produce to the Cocoa Board for prices which may not cover total costs...thus ensuring they don't /won't stay in business.