The return of King Cocoa in Trinidad & Tobago

T&T once grew some of the world’s finest cocoa, and now the industry is being revived. Jonathan Ali tasted the premium chocolate being made in Tobago

  • The finest chocolate is savoured by connoisseurs worldwide. Photograph by Alex Smailes / Abovegroup Ogilvy
  • Dove hard at work on his Tobago Cocoa Estate. Photograph by Alex Smailes / Abovegroup Ogilvy
  • Sorting the cocoa beans. Photography by Alex Smailes / Abovegroup Ogilvy

In the hills above the village of Roxborough, towards the eastern end of Tobago’s wave-pounded windward coast, cocoa is making a comeback. The man responsible for this renaissance is Duane Dove, a sommelier and the owner of Tobago Cocoa, an estate that grows a variety known as “fine” or “flavour” cocoa. The holy grail of cocoa, fine/flavour is used to make much of the world’s best chocolate, and the cocoa from Dove’s estate goes into his own brand of premium chocolate bars.

How did a sommelier – a wine expert – get into growing cocoa? “I have cocoa in my blood,” Dove jovially remarks. “Some of the old family genes are now coming through.”

Forty years old, with piercing blue-grey-green eyes and an open, convivial manner, Dove is speaking with me on his estate one sunny morning early in the dry season. The incipient heat is tempered by the breeze blowing in off the Atlantic. Bananaquits twitter in the trees around us, while matte lizards slither through the underbrush.

Dove was born and raised in Tobago, where for several generations his family has owned an estate in Bacolet. “As a boy, on weekends I would go and help my uncles with the cocoa. Picking, cracking, sifting – everything.”

After school, Dove left Tobago for Toronto, initially to study engineering. He was lured into the food and beverage industry, eventually gaining a diploma in the culinary arts. Along the way he’d made some Swedish friends, and went to visit the country, where he found romance. Sweden is now his primary home. (It was the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus who gave cocoa its botanical name, theobroma cacao – cocoa, food of the gods.)

In Stockholm, a friend of a friend invited Dove to become a partner in his upscale restaurant, Sjögräs. (Pronounced something like “shur-grus”, the name means “seaweed”.) Dove agreed, and also decided to do the sommelier course at the Swedish Restaurant Academy.

It was then that Dove had the idea of twinning aged rums with fine chocolate, something for which he has gained a reputation. “Rum and chocolate have a lot in common. The complementary flavours of sugar, vanilla and caramel make them the perfect pair.” Rum and chocolate tastings are a special feature at Sjögräs, which has a collection of over 200 types of aged, mostly Caribbean rum.

Dove then decided to get into cocoa and chocolate production himself, and now Tobago is part of the artisan chocolate fold, thanks to his Tobago Cocoa single-estate bar. Production began two years ago with the estate’s first significant harvest, and last year’s harvest was expected to be three or four times that amount.

Trinitario is tops

Some of the best cocoa in the world comes from Trinidad & Tobago, and trinitario cocoa, one of the three varieties of cocoa, is indigenous to the islands. The others are criollo, which is also fine/flavour, and the lower-grade forastero. (Trinitario cocoa is actually an interbreeding of these two varieties.)

As the history books attest, cocoa was king in Trinidad & Tobago from the 1860s to the early 1920s, and for a while the country was one of the world’s top five producers. Then prices collapsed and the dreaded witchbroom disease took hold, a double blow from which the industry never really recovered. In Tobago, the crop held out until 1963, when Hurricane Flora brought production virtually to an end.

Now Dove is getting cocoa back on the move with his 60-acre estate, which he bought in 2004. “This is the biggest thing to happen in cocoa in Tobago in 60 years,” he declares.

Chocolate for connoisseurs

A rarefied world not unlike that of fine wines or single-malt whiskies, the artisan chocolate community will pay eyebrow-raising sums to enjoy top-quality “single-estate” chocolate bars. These are made from cocoa grown on a sole estate, and contain between 60 and 70 per cent fine/flavour cocoa. (By contrast, the average Cadbury’s or Hershey’s bar has between 20 and 40 per cent, mainly forastero cocoa).

Artisan chocolate connoisseurs discourse on the subtle flavour differences between chocolates made with cocoa from different countries, and some can even identify vintages from a single estate.

Trinidad supplies the cocoa for the renowned Gran Couva chocolate bar, made by the French chocolatiers Valrhona.

A bite of bliss

Finally, it’s time I taste the chocolate. There is no refrigeration, so the bars are kept among ice packs in a cooler. Informally – disrespectfully, some might sniff, but not me – Dove unwraps the dark brown bar with his bare hands and breaks it into jagged squares. I pick one up from the foil wrapping, place it on my tongue, close my eyes and chew.

Immediately I am hit by an intense richness and an agreeable bitterness, which is followed by a subtle sweetness. Not having a chocolate connoisseur’s palate, I’m unable to identify all the flavour notes, but they’re there – cherry, plum, caramel, perhaps passionfruit, maybe mango. The bitterness returns to join the sweetness, and the two dance together, a luxurious, lingering aftertaste enveloping my mouth.

What, more than anything, is giving me this singular experience is the virtually pure flavour of cocoa, cocoa, cocoa. It is almost the identical flavour I got earlier when I cracked open a dried bean and inhaled its heady scent; a scent that has its provenance in the sweet Tobago earth on which I am standing. I open my eyes and reach for another piece of bliss.

From bean to bar

As Dove points out, to go from bean to bar is a painstaking process, involving care and commitment. “What makes a really good chocolate is the raw material, the cocoa. But what you do post-harvest is crucial, too.”

To begin with, the cocoa seedlings are planted an optimal two metres apart. Aside from some fertiliser added in the first year, no chemicals are used. Cassava and banana plants, as well as the traditional red-flowered immortelle trees, are used to shade the young cocoa trees. The ripening fruit are covered with netting to keep parrots and squirrels away; trained hawks belonging to a local falconer are also used.

When the pods are harvested, they are split using a teak mallet, rather than a blade, to avoid damaging the treasure inside. The beans are then fermented for a few days in teak boxes, and turned – gingerly, with a teak shovel – to ensure even fermentation. Next they are checked for the right moisture content with a digital meter, the only modern technology employed in what is essentially a traditional process. Then comes the drying, in direct sunlight, for a few hours every day for a week. “That,” says Dove, “brings out the aromas in the cocoa beans in the finest way.”

Once the beans have been sifted to remove impurities, they are bagged and sent to master chocolatier François Pralus of Lyon. He makes his chocolate in small batches, first roasting the beans slowly in copper roasters at low temperatures. Then unrefined cane sugar, vanilla, cocoa butter, and a little soy lecithin – an emulsifier, to keep the texture consistent – are added. (Ingredients such as milk, fruit or nuts are abhorred by most fine-chocolate aficionados.)

Everything is then mixed, in a process known as conching. The longer you conch chocolate, the better the texture and melt you get in the finished bar. Tobago Cocoa’s chocolate is conched for the maximum 72 hours. The end result is a 70-per-cent-cocoa, 100-gram chocolate bar, containing between two and three pods’ worth of cocoa.

The chocolate is available for tasting on the estate itself, as part of tour packages that Dove has developed. Visitors are taken around the estate, and afterwards enjoy an alfresco lunch complete with bread made from the estate’s own cassava, and baked in an Amerindian-style dirt oven. There is the further option of a Tobago creole dinner followed by a chocolate and rum tasting.

Where to buy it

The bars are available at Dove’s own Stockholm shop, Small Island Chocolates and Coffee, as well as François Pralus’s shop in Paris, and a handful of locations in Trinidad & Tobago, where they retail for about TT$120 a bar.

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