On our way to the cocoa estate, guide Monica Greig gave the tour-bus riders an animated crash course on cocoa and its traditions on the island of Tobago. After the beans were aged and dried, plantation workers "danced the cocoa." — That is, trod barefoot upon it until the beans shone. "You must have clean feet!" she cries. "No stinky toes!" Cocoa was especially popular as a drink at funerals and Christmastime, she says.
Armed with this information, we got off the bus at the Tobago Cocoa Estate. Established in 2005 by sommelier Duane Dove, this is both a working 48-acre cocoa plantation, and a place for tourists to learn about Tobago's chocolate-producing heritage.
A brief history of chocolate in Tobago
From the 1780s until the 1920s, both Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) grew a lot of cocoa for export. The Trinitario variety, grown exclusively in these two islands, was more valuable than sugar. However, the crop was susceptible to diseases and hungry insects. By the end of the 1920s, witches broom disease, the Great Depression, and rising labour costs all made growing cocoa unprofitable.
Some small-scale operations hung on. But in 1963, the year after T&T gained independence from Great Britain, Hurricane Flora hit. The island nation is outside the main Caribbean hurricane belt, but Flora didn't care. She slammed Tobago with 193 kilometre/hour winds, damaging or destroying 6,250 out of 7,500 houses on the island, and doing $30 million worth of crop and property damage. The island's agriculture was mostly destroyed. But Duane Dove's family saved its small holding. In the late '70s and '80s, Dove worked with his uncle John harvesting, fermenting, sun drying, grading, and selling cocoa to the local buyer.
Taking the tour
The Tobago Chocolate Estate gets 1,000 to 3,000 visitors per year, mostly during high season from December to April. I was there in September, during the hot and rainy season, when things were quiet.
Manager Harry Sookdeo led us through the parts of the estate that are set up for visitors. He's been at the estate since it opened 10 years ago. Serious and intense looking, Sookdeo didn't crack a smile the whole time. He pointed out the cocoa and the coffee plants. "Every cocoa estate you go to, you find coffee," he says. "Coffee and chocolate go together."
Harvesting doesn't begin until November. I caught berry season, when the cacao pods turn bright red. It's a beautiful plantation, with ginger, jackfruit and other tropical trees and plants. Some were labelled for the tourists.
Sookdeo led us to a gazebo, where he cut open a fresh cacao pod and revealed an alien-looking mass of white goo. As he offered it around, trepidation showed on the faces of my fellow visitors. Slimy? Sure. But also sweet.
One surprising problem for cocoa growers: Parrots. "Are the parrots trying to eat the cocoa pods?" I ask, not sure I heard him right.
"They're not trying. They eat them," Sookdeo answers sternly. Trained hawks discourage the parrots from eating the cocoa. I refrained from asking about the permanence of this discouragement.
Next on the tour, the wooden shacks for drying and fermenting. Sookdeo explained the process: Dry the pods for eight days in the hot sun. Break them open, stick the pods in a box to ferment, cover with banana leaves. Over the next six days, the white goo turns to liquid and drips out of a hole in the box, leaving the workers with brown, fermented beans. These go in a shack with a retractable roof. Workers open the roof for five hours a day, turning the beans every 15 minutes. After five hours, they close the roof. They do this for eight days in a row before the beans are ready.
I was amazed to learn that only four people work on the estate, producing two to three tons of cocoa per year. But despite the small-scale nature of this operation, the awards displayed on the wall of the tasting room say it all. Dove and his crew have put Tobago back on the chocolate map.
Duane Dove's vision
Duane Dove is based in Sweden. I later asked him via email why he decided to revive this dormant industry. "I have cocoa in my blood," he tells me. After he finished sommelier training, his cocoa roots called him back. He supplemented his basic cocoa knowledge with courses at the University of the West Indies and through T&T's Ministry of Agriculture. He also trained extensively in Europe.
The Tobago Cocoa Estate ships its beans to France, where master chocolate maker Francois Pralus turns them into smooth, delicious bars. Together they've won several international chocolate awards. Dove is especially interested in pairing cocoa and rum.
"I guess I love my little island, and see the huge potential with one-bean, one-source cocoa aligned with direct working partnerships with high-end chocolate makers," Dove says.
For Part 1 of Teresa's stories on Trinidad and Tobago, go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com, Oct. 20, 2016.