It’s 7am. A mist hangs over the open, undulating terrain. On the Guaracara Tabaquite Road that leads to Rio Claro in southeast Trinidad, scattered furrows appear on the hillsides. Forests host teak trees that canopy the roadway. This pristine landscape is interrupted by concrete buildings — houses, a police station, schools, bars, old cocoa houses peeping through trees.
Punctuating the journey at different points are signs advertising “Lots For Sale” — evidence that this is a place in transition, a space in midstride between the old and the new. Here, the Rio Claro Demonstration Station stands like a great house on the hill.
Situated on what was once a part of the Agostini estate, it is a hub for teaching and experimentation. Since the 1950s, the station has been a site for breeding cocoa — including the world famous Trinitario, the Imperial College Selections (ICS), and the Trinidad Select Hybrids (TSHs) developed by William Freeman. Here, there are plots still affectionately referred to as the “Freeman plots”.
“A lot of the cocoa breeding research work done at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, now UWI (University of the West Indies), and the Ministry of Agriculture at Centeno was brought to the station for evaluation,” explains my guide Kamaldeo Maharaj. “The varieties that performed well were propagated and sold to farmers across the country.” His wealth of knowledge comes from over 20 years as an agricultural officer and as a board member of the Cocoa Development Company of Trinidad & Tobago.
With this rich history and deep agricultural roots, it’s clear how Rio Claro and environs have become such a stand-out in Trinidad’s award-winning cocoa industry, gaining international recognition. In 2017 at the international Cocoa of Excellence Awards, Rio Claro placed in the top 50. Since then, the Rio Claro estates have consistently placed in the top 15 at the National Cocoa Awards, a testament to the enduring heritage of cocoa here.
In earlier conversations I’d had with Professor Pathmanathan Umaharan and Dr Darin Sukha, director and research fellow respectively at the UWI Cocoa Research Centre (CRC), I remembered they’d explained that it’s the “terroir effect” that makes these cocoa beans so unique and sought after.
For cocoa — just like with great wines — the flora, fauna, micro-climate and soil of the districts in which beans are grown impart the flavour. Beans from Rio Claro are described as raisiny and fruity, while similar varieties grown in Moruga have a nutty flavour, or a floral flavour in Lopinot.
The cocoa trees at the station are short and closely spaced, providing shelter — but the shade is deceptive. In the tropical humidity, it is sweltering. Seeing the cocoa pods clinging to the tree bark brings back memories of the tangy pulp-covered seeds; the sticky juice on fingers; cheeks that hurt from sucking on them, two at a time. I smile. It smelled nothing like chocolate, tasted nothing like chocolate, looked nothing like chocolate.
I’m brought back by the smell of shadon beni — a familiar scent, wafting up as the huge leaves come under foot. Rio Claro, I remember too, is the hub of all shadon beni production in Trinidad & Tobago. Nearby, a worker is enjoying a freshly picked orange, cutlass in hand, ready at a moment to continue the day’s labour.
“Cocoa is never a primary crop, always part of a mixed cropping system in this country, providing farmers diverse income,” explains Sukha. “[It] makes economic sense for small estates producing micro-lots [with an] ecological equilibrium, where you are not drawing or exploiting one resource but spreading risk.” This was especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions when practically all non-essential sectors shut down.
Today, producers in the area — Sabita Mykoo, President of Rio Claro Fine Flavour Cocoa Fermenters Ltd; and Gewan Gangaram — focus on high quality beans, processing, and value-added products to continue their expansion into lucrative international niche markets.
“I’ve learnt that cocoa is food, and I treat it with that respect,” says Mykoo.
“The station remains steadfast — it continues the important research, shares tested practices with farmers to optimise their processes and deliver to market the best quality beans,” says Florencia Beckles-Gangaram, Team Leader at the Rio Claro Demonstration Station.
Gewan’s beans can be found in Seahorse Chocolate. He also exports to Meridian Cacao Co, while Sabita continues to delight the local market with her range of products under her brand Sabita’s Cocoa Delights. Cocoa Rio and Rio Claro Chocolate are also products of the area.
As I explore further, my thoughts drift to Professor Umaharan stressing the importance of the southeast region as the main cocoa producing area for Trinidad & Tobago. She describes it as a favourable ecosystem, with reduced impact from pest and disease, and acreage which has not yet been diminished by commercial endeavours.
Yet, the impacts of climate change pose a growing threat. The steady rainfall of the last five years has led to a resurgence of witches’ broom disease in the Rio Claro area, recalling the 1725 “cocoa blast” where the disease almost decimated the industry.
I wonder what Freeman and fellow cocoa research scientist FJ Pound would make of climate change, as both scholars’ research was a relentless search for resilient and delicious varieties — a body of work that has saved this delectable and irreplaceable food.
The CRC has continued that invaluable work as the trustee of the world’s longest continuously funded cocoa breeding programme, and one of the world’s most diverse collections of elite and “wild” cacao germplasm — living genetic resources like seeds, plants, and cultures — at the International Cocoa Genebank in Centeno.
The world owes no small debt to these tiny islands for access to this living bank in central Trinidad. The idea of a genebank may conjure images of a repository of seeds housed in glass tubes, but it is in fact 100 acres of over 2,000 trees — a living library that supports the world’s cocoa research and remains a provenance of the islands’ cocoa legacy.
Cocoa’s story is the human story, a story of resilience and resurgence. From its first iteration as currency — an indication of wealth — through to the present, its value has endured. From artisanal chocolates and drinks to soaps and nibs, cocoa continues to inspire the imagination.
Through a delicate mix of tradition and new knowledge, Rio Claro remains the bedrock of the Trinidad & Tobago cocoa experience, consistently conjuring the “food of the gods”, and reminding us that cocoa is gold.