Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Food of the gods

An old woman in the country chews dried cocoa beans to soothe the pain of her arthritis. It's the antioxidants in the beans, explains the professor.

We are a motley bunch in office dress, in the middle of a working day. There's an air of breaking biche, escaping the ordinary, out on a field trip. We have arrived in what might be a clearing deep in a tropical rainforest. The trees here are short - most about eight or ten feet - gangly looking, with a few sturdy mottled branches starting low on the main trunk. The leaves might have been drawn by a kindergartener - the classic shape in various sizes and shades of green. The occasional clump of banana trees in between. Green ferns like stars growing through the leaf litter. And towering above, one or two immortelles just past flowering. Small signs on pickets indicate Amazon, Peru, Ecuador and other origins.
In the pommerac lined lanes of the cocoa gene bank

We are in the International Cocoa Gene Bank in Trinidad. The estate is 33 hectares (81) acres. It is home to 2400 different types of cocoa, planted 400 trees to the acre,  about 16 trees per cocoa type. Because it is the only collection in the world, it has been designated a Universal Collection by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI). 

The group that walks the pommerac-lined lanes have come for different reasons. The "gentleman farmer" has timber stands in the north east of the island: perhaps cocoa might grow as the understory to cedar. The eco-trustee is keen on rehabilitating cocoa estates as a means to utilise land and employ families living in remote communities. Several Caribbean states with investments in cocoa are sharing information and looking to Trinidad to provide new technology, and more importantly, new plants developed with the magical formula - disease resistant, high yield and excellent flavour. The Cocoa Research Unit's work in mapping the DNA of cocoa, its access to germplasm of all the types in the world and almost a hundred years of research, knowledge and cross-breeding make the dream possible.

For Trinidad and Tobago, the dream is more than just enlarging its place as a fine flavour cocoa producer. We have the potential to capture the entire value chain and create the Trini brand of exquisite chocolate. We can also take the lead in the region - nine Caribbean states - that produces flavour beans sought after by world-renowned specialty chocolatiers.
An understory tree that originated in the Amazon

But, as gentleman farmer points out, there are too many "its" in cocoa farming - plant it, prune it, reap it, shell it, ferment it, dance it - before you can earn a living.

A cocoa resurgence, however, requires more than harking back to an age when the "cocoa panyols" were content to live and mind cocoa in the remote valleys, making a ritual of the harvest and drying in sheds with rolling roofs, a celebration of "dancing" the beans to a fine polish with their bare feet; and the trek to town to deliver bags of beans by donkey or lorry. It requires new technology yes. Cocoa also requires collaborative thinking and effort, and a Cocoa Board that is in tune with the potential and threats of globalisation.
Gold of the Mayans and Aztecs

A handful of entrepreneurs are already showing what's possible - Duane Dove with his single estate chocolate, grown in Tobago and finessed in Europe; Isabel Brash and her brother with their Cocobel "bean to bar" single estate gourmet chocolate made and flavoured in Isabel's kitchen.
Among the fruits of the new world forests that have made their way around the world, cocoa was more than food. Made into a drink (xoxoatl means bitter water) by the Mayans, it was referred to as the food of  the gods (theobroma cacao) - no doubt for its bracing restorative quality. The Aztecs too regarded it as an elixir of health. The cocoa pod was the symbol of fertility, wisdom and power; and the beans were used as currency. While these early Americans enjoyed their cocoa water au naturel or spiced with hot chilis and cornmeal, it became popular in Europe sweetened and flavoured with spices such as vanilla and cinnamon.
Symbol of fertility, wisdom and power

In Trinidad today, we have all the ingredients for a vibrant cocoa industry - the knowledge, the trees, the lands that once produced 300,000 tons each year (against the 400 tons currently). What are we waiting for? Surely the "food of the gods" might be worth the hard work.
Flowers of Theobroma speciosa, a cousin to cocoa


  1. I must be picking up your telepathic vibes. Arranging a mtg w Darin Sukha, CRU, for April18 to consider a processing project. Want to join the discussion? Call me 350-5900

  2. Did they mention anything about a major fire at one point in time?

  3. It was reported that in 1727, there was a "blast" that devastated the cocoa plantations in Trinidad. This blast has been interpreted as a hurricane, but It also seems possible to have been some kind of virus that destroyed trees and crops. Over another generation, this lead to development of the cross breed of the sturdy forastero introduced from Venezuela with the criollo to produce the Trinitario.