I used to boast to my foodie friends in London that posh chocolates like Green & Black’s and Valhrona Gran Couva were made with cocoa from Trinidad and Tobago. “Our Trinitario bean is one of the best in the world,” I would say. But lately, I’ve gone from boasting about the Trinidadian components in Green and Black’s to bigging up local artisanal chocolate that’s good enough to sit comfortably alongside those notable foreign brands.
In the last decade, the chocolate industry in T&T has gone from zero to hero, due to the efforts of a bunch of people who feel confident enough to invest their hearts, souls, and savings into breaking new ground. The public now has the opportunity to taste excellent-quality local chocolate at events all year round. They can learn more about the industry from farmers and chocolate makers themselves, and depending on the event, visitors can even “dance the cocoa” (literally dancing on cocoa beans to dry and polish them). Gourmet shops and restaurants now host exclusive chocolate tasting sessions where, just like wine tasting, people are taught about the subtleties and nuances of Trinidad chocolate.
Our chocolatiers are also creating hybrid flavours like Scorpion pepper, guava, and chadon beni (similar to cilantro). Local artisanal chocolate has made such an impact, departing visitors now often take back chocolate bars as well as the traditional bottle of duty-free rum.
In the early part of the twentieth century, cocoa agriculture was one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most vibrant sectors. Records show that in the 1920s T&T produced more than 35,000 metric tons of cocoa a year, making it one of the world’s top producers at that time. But that was before oil and gas. Once this country became dependent on the energy sector, the cocoa industry declined steadily. Now, the country produces less than 1,000 metric tons annually.
Cocoa harvesting is a communal activity. As Gillian Goddard of Sun Eaters Organics explains, the current resurgence of the industry has been positive for rural communities. “Many communities in Trinidad and Tobago were built around an agricultural base of cocoa. As we moved nationally from an agriculturally based economy to a petroleum-based economy, these communities lost their cultural structures and became dangerously fragmented,” Goddard says.
“Cocoa is a crop that required a fair amount of collective activity and in which the entire community would be engaged. As cocoa lost its importance, it was not replaced by anything that kept cohesion intact.”
Goddard is one of the founders of the Alliance of Rural Communities, which is promoting community chocolate-making. She has seen the benefits of this in her work with the Brasso Seco Chocolate Company, based in a small village in the Northern Range. “Now that the communities are making chocolate, they have an opportunity to be involved in something which requires communication, co-operation, and attention to detail close to home,” Goddard explains. “In one of the communities, there have been children’s chocolate camps, and most of the nine- to eleven-year-olds know the basics of making chocolate, are familiar with the taste of their chocolate, and can even make a bit of money, when they want, helping wrap bars or put on labels
Isabel Brash of Cocobel got into making chocolate quite by accident. An architect and artist, Brash started by experimenting with cocoa from her brother’s estate in Rancho Quemado in south Trinidad. Almost ten years later, her line of chocolates is considered one of the very best. Despite her success, she is concerned about the sustainability of the agricultural end of the industry.
“I still think there needs to be more done on the farming side than the chocolate production side. We need cocoa to make chocolate,” she says. “We need farmers and chocolate makers to work together. We need farming to be pushed in schools, from pre-school up, as a respected form of income, and farmers need to feel integrated into the manufacturing side of things. So I would love to see more and more younger people with great business minds getting into cocoa farming, and having direct relationships with chocolate makers.”
Another huge step for the chocolate industry came in 2015, when the Trinidad and Tobago Fine Cocoa Company opened a cocoa processing plant in Centeno, central Trinidad. Ashley Parasram, a Trinidad-born British entrepreneur, has invested millions of dollars in this facility, which has been exporting high-quality cocoa products to Europe. Speaking in the British restaurant trade magazine The Caterer, Parasram said, “We are developing rigorous quality control standards across all our partner cocoa estates with established management of the beans, the fermentation period, and the whole process from plantation to final product.”
The Trinidad and Tobago Fine Cocoa Company has partnered with British chocolatiers Artisan du Chocolat to produce a range of dark and milk chocolates which are smartly packaged in tins shaped like T&T’s national musical instrument, the steelpan. The tins caused a sensation among Trinis in London who saw them for sale in places like Harrods and Borough Market. When I met Parasram last year and tasted the chocolate, I understood why those diaspora Trinis were making such a fuss. We spoke about the rave reviews, and Parasram said he was proud the chocolate gets such a positive reception, and that it’s easily identifiable as a product of Trinidad and Tobago.
But what does the future hold for this fast-growing industry?
The recession doesn’t seem to have stopped that growth. In February 2017, a new player, Tamana Mountain Chocolate, entered the market. Headquartered in the lush but remote village of Mundo Nuevo in the hills of central Trinidad, the organisation says it is geared towards stimulating agriculture in that community.
Gillian Goddard — whose work revolves around organic farming and encouraging others to revive indigenous methods of food production — thinks the time is ripe for T&T to become a global leader in quality value-added cocoa products. “Most countries that make chocolate are not cocoa-growing countries,” she says. “Trinidad and Tobago not only has an ecosystem that produces some of the highest quality beans in the world, we also have an economic climate that allows locals to be able to pay for the highest quality chocolate.
“The chocolate makers have the context to experiment, improve, and eventually reach the highest global standard with the end product. We can have control over the genetics and processing of the beans in a way that cocoa bean importers rarely have. And,” Goddard notes, “we have a massive variety of other agricultural products with which we can combine our chocolate.”
Paying farmers adequately and more widespread use of local chocolate are ways Isabel Brash feels the industry can remain buoyant. “Why not just make sure the cocoa beans get their value’s worth, whether the buyers are local or foreign?” she asks. “The industry would never have slumped so badly if farmers were being paid properly for their work.”
Brash adds, “It would also be great if restaurants and hotels and schools would serve only local cocoa products. The whole island needs to be involved in the healing of the industry. If all consumers, all markets, understand where the money is going and how it affects us as a whole, don’t you think they would spend a little more on the local cocoa?”