Re-imagining the story of a lost treasure; Original Trinitario Cocoa
Featured at Inter-American Development Bank / Compete Caribbean and World Fair Trade Organization Europe
Close your eyes and follow me on a journey many years back in time. Imagine a place of rich history and cultural diversity, a place of friendly and hospitable people, a place of lush rainforests and an abundance of exotic fruits, a place that is home to one of the most exclusive fine flavor cocoa, a place that has an ocean of stories to tell… Welcome to Trinidad & Tobago! Open your eyes again.
During the last weeks of my field trips in Trinidad & Tobago, my travels have taken me to many corners all around the twin islands, passing by once gracious and now abandoned farmland. Here, nature claimed back a space that once was cultivated, where only little pieces provide a glimpse of the image it used to represent. Silently, I hold in for a moment, re-imagining its scene back then, realizing that no existence is eternal – instead, life is ephemeral and very fragile, and we need to appreciate and care for it now to ensure its presence today and in the future.
So, let me go back in time, and tell you a synopsis of stories that were told by the twin-islands farmers about these abandoned yet mystical places, a journey to rediscover a lost treasure: The story behind The Original Trinitario cocoa variety.
After a long walk through the cocoa estate, I sit with Martin Matthews of Tamana Mountain Chocolate Estate in his beautiful wooden cabin, which, as we chat, is gently flooded by a lovely afternoon breeze and prosperously visited by a variety of brightly colored hummingbirds. He tells me, that cocoa originated in a South and Central American context and was first used by the Aztecs and Mayas as a holy drink that was prepared at special events such as weddings with crushed cocoa beans, water, chili peppers, and cornmeal. Hence, the name “Theobroma cocoa”, or the Food of the Gods. Later on, cocoa’s relevancy grew in a socio-political context as it represented a viable trading tool, where beans were exchanged for products and slaves, too. Sad but true.
Taking on an increasingly important role, cocoa went on a journey across Mesoamerica, where it has been first cultivated in Trinidad & Tobago by the Spaniards in 1525, hence the “Chocolate Islands”. During this time, the Spaniards brought Criollo beans which are characterized by notes of chocolate, caramel, and nuts. These plants, however, became increasingly endangered by diseases. To combat the declining cocoa occurrence across the region, Forastero varieties were brought into the islands; This variety is nowadays known as bulk cocoa, with full-bodied cocoa notes which are said to lack complex flavor notes. Over time and evolutional progressions, Criollo and Forastero plants began to cross-pollinate naturally and gave rise to a new hybrid cocoa that is known as original Trinitario Cocoa.
But Trinitario Cocoa is not solely produced on its mother soil; As Martin notes, “We are not the only ones, although it was born here”. On the opposite, today Trinitario cocoa is grown in more than ten countries around the world, with continuously decreasing occurrences across Trinidad & Tobago to annual harvests as little as 500 tons (Jewell, 2017). Whereas West Africa presents a predominant cocoa region, Central and South American Countries produce less than a fifth of the world’s cocoa (Leissle, 2018). One may wonder what happened to a nation that once produced 34.000 tons of cocoa beans annually (Bekele, 2004), representing the third largest producer of cocoa in the world?
Martin explains, that not only environmental factors, such as a variety of diseases such as black pod and witches’ broom started to infiltrate the existence of cocoa, but also both local and global socio-economic forces. With rising prices for sugar, farmers saw fewer prospects to continue cocoa cultivation and instead began to convert their estates into sugar cane monocultures. Additionally, the country’s energy sector experienced a blooming season, leading to many agricultural workers leaving their work on the fields behind for a more prosperous career in the increasingly expanding energy sector. As a matter of these forceful circumstances, the cost of producing cocoa in Trinidad & Tobago is much higher than compared to other Latin American and Caribbean countries, making it difficult for the twin islands to compete on price with the demands of the global cocoa market.
But original Trinitario Cocoa’s story is not meant to end here. Why? I have been told many reasons why it is worth carrying on writing the story of Trinitario Cocoa for many more generations to come! Let me share some of these insights with you.
Cocoa experts and lovers across the Chocolate Islands™ are increasingly placing efforts to not only survive, but to also revive the story of Trinitario cocoa and ensure its high-quality products for the international cocoa market. Presently, original Trinitario Cocoa cultivation is experiencing a flourishing re-discovery both locally and globally, enhancing cocoa demand to a level that presently cannot be satisfied. If you, just like I, have been only introduced to bulk chocolate products that are widely distributed in every supermarket all across the Western hemisphere, experiencing a crafted piece of original Trinitario cocoa will blow your mind. Its rich flavor profile enhances fruity to floral notes, representing a synergy of both Criollo’s and Forastero’s best qualities. It truly is a treasure for the taste buds, with a variety of health benefits too; In fact, experiencing its exquisite quality shall alter your perception of chocolate forever. No surprise, it won many international awards over the past years.
But not only its awards and superb quality calls for attention, but also Trinidad & Tobago’s immense efforts to understand and enhance the evolution of its fine cocoa products. Trinidad’s Cocoa Research Centre placed immense efforts in research and is the custodian of the world’s largest cocoa gene bank counting more than 2000 different varieties of Theobroma cocoa. Who would have thought of so much variety, if all we know is bulk cocoa?
On top of that, governments and industries are synergizing their forces to enforce collective clusters, such as Übergreen Organic’s spearheading the Organic Fine Cocoa and Chocolate Cluster (OFCCC) which aims at creating a business ecosystem that promotes social, environmental, and economic value generations for all actors along the supply chain, promoting a focus on local value generation (from bean to bar) and organic certifications. Recently, the OFCCC counts 15 members, both cocoa farmers, and processors, and many more small-hold farmers across the Chocolate Islands™ are interested to join the community to foster a more sustainable future and revive original Trinitario cocoa on the global market.
You may understand now that to appreciate Trinitario cocoa, it is of immense importance to understand its long and quite intricate history across the twin islands… and the story is far from being written, no, it is like an assertive re-emergence of Trinitario cocoa: A re-discovery of a lost treasure. Let’s explore what stories farmers and processors will reveal over the coming weeks and months, narratives about challenges and hardships, about opportunities and hope, narratives about collective efforts to preserve original Trinitario cocoa.
Bekele, F. (2004). The History of Cocoa Production in Trinidad and Tobago. Pages 4-12 in Proceedings of the APASTT Seminar – Exhibition entitled Re-vitalisation of the Trinidad & Tobago Cocoa Industry, 20 September 2003, St. Augustine, Trinidad.
Jewell, C. (2017). Breathing New Life into Trinidad and Tobago's Cocoa Sector. Wipo.int. Retrieved from https://www.wipo.int/wipo_magazine/en/2017/05/article_0005.html.
Leissle, K. (2018). Cocoa. Polity Press.
Übergreen Organics platform: https://www.ubergreen.org
Tamana Mountain Chocolates: https://www.facebook.com/Tamana-Mountain-Chocolate-1835887860020276/