Chocolat: Trinidad’s world-class chocolate

Some of the world’s finest cocoa is grown in Trinidad. Desirée Baptiste follows the path of the island’s beans from plantation to connoisseur’s palate

Freshly cracked cocoa pods. Photograph by Anton ModesteHot air drying process. Photograph by Anton Modeste

True lovers of chocolate know that this dark delicacy is more than just a temptation — it’s elemental. While air and water keep our bodies alive, chocolate, like love, feeds the soul. It’s no surprise that the botanical name for the cocoa tree, theobroma, means “food of the gods”. And as a 17th-century Mexican bishop discovered the hard way (he was found poisoned after he forbade his congregation to serve drinking chocolate during mass), standing between a chocolate lover and his fix can prove a costly mistake.

 

Food of the Gods

Humankind’s devotion to chocolate goes back a long way. The Mayans were the first to systematically cultivate cocoa, roasting the beans to produce a highly prized beverage (the first hot chocolate). Cocoa was so valuable to this ancient civilisation that the beans were even used as a form of currency.

Today, chocolate in all its forms is prized the world over. But while Belgium, Switzerland and Britain produce the most popular brands, most mass-produced chocolate is, sadly, a watered-down version of the legendary stuff, containing little cocoa solid content, and lots of sugar.

Cocoa’s natural fat, cocoa butter, the thing that gives high-quality chocolate its special texture, is often removed by mass producers and sold to the cosmetics industry. In place of cocoa butter, they substitute the less expensive palm oil (and then add even more sugar to disguise its dreadful taste!). Connoisseurs view such ersatz commercial confections as an abomination, distracting potential devotees from the true path to chocolate heaven.

 

Valrhona’s Reign of Terror

To find the food of the gods, one must be prepared to go to the source, as 90 percent of the quality of a given chocolate lies in the pedigree of the cocoa bean itself.

What does that mean for the serious chocolate lover? A trip into the Amazon to pick, roast, and blend the beans oneself? Luckily, that hasn’t become necessary, thanks to exclusive chocolate houses such as France’s Valrhona, dedicated to capturing in chocolate what wine-makers term the goût de terroir, the individual flavour characteristics created by the soil and climate within a particular country or estate.

Valrhona chocolates are a purist’s dream — high cocoa solid content, very little sugar, and a smooth, velvety texture derived from pure cocoa butter. (A piece of Valrhona chocolate takes all of three seconds to vanish on the tongue, as pure cocoa butter melts at body temperature.) Most important to this chocolate house, however, is the quality of the bean because, ultimately, no amount of technique can mask the flavour of inferior cocoa.

For sourcing of raw materials, Valrhona’s philosophy is simple: if a country grows 500,000 tonnes of cocoa beans in a year but only 50 tonnes are of the highest quality, it is their mission to find those 50 tonnes and leave the rest behind. As a result, Valrhona has secured for itself an exclusive supply of cocoa “Grand Crus”, the cream of the crop from the best cocoa plantations in the Caribbean, South America and the Pacific.

 

From Gran Couva to Grand Cru

One such plantation is the San Juan Estate in Gran Couva in the Montserrat Hills of Trinidad, home to what is perhaps the most exquisite cocoa in the world. Valrhona was so impressed by the quality of San Juan’s beans that the company decided to create a chocolate line dedicated to the estate. The line, launched in 1997, is called “Gran Couva”, and is Valrhona’s first “estate” chocolate, made exclusively from cocoa beans sourced at a single property.

Yet it’s hardly surprising that Valrhona has found its most impressive source of cocoa so far in Trinidad. This island has been at the top of the cocoa hierarchy for quite some time, famous throughout the world for its fine or flavour cocoa, used as a quality “booster” in the manufacture of mass-produced chocolate.

 

Criollos and Creoles

What makes Trinidad’s cocoa so special? Is it the soil? The climate? The traditions? Actually, it’s all of the above, a unique combination of factors that wine makers term terroir, with the added boost of a single freak event in history which lifted the island out of cocoa obscurity and onto the world stage.

Spanish monks, working their way through Trinidad and christianising the native Amerindians, reached the Montserrat Hills in 1687. There, they found cocoa of the rare criollo type, fragile but exquisite in flavour, and began cultivation. Chocolate was hugely popular in Spain by then, and the island’s coffers filled up for the first time. Then, in 1727, disaster struck. Trinidad’s entire cocoa crop was wiped out in a single blow. Accounts are unclear as to what exactly happened, but in all probability it was a hurricane or an epidemic outbreak of pests or disease.

In 1733, new plants were brought in from South America, of the common forastero variety, bland in flavour, but sturdy. Remarkably, these plants hybridised naturally with the remnants of the  original criollo stock, and a new cocoa variety was born: the trinitario (native to Trinidad), blessed with all the flavour characteristics of the criollo, as well as the sturdiness of the forastero.

After the French Revolution, the King of Spain invited French Catholics to colonise Trinidad, which was then severely under-populated. Those already in Grenada and Martinique responded, and brought with them the agricultural experience needed to develop the new cocoa industry. These new émigrés, “French Creoles”, became very wealthy, building beautiful mansions in Port of Spain, and spending their new riches so lavishly and so quickly that the Great Depression of 1929 left most of them, as well as their adopted homeland, ruined. Until 1900, however, Trinidad was still the world’s largest producer of cocoa.

Today, the cocoa of the San Juan Estate, the island’s oldest plantation, is putting Trinidad back on the map.

 

Chocolate Earth

As I toured the estate with owner Philippe Agostini, the concept of terroir came to life. Agostini explained the unique characteristics of the soil, of such an intense brown that the workers call it “chocolate earth”. The estate has its own cool microclimate. A canopy of tall trees keeps the tropical sun at bay, creating the perfect temperature. Banana trees give shade to the young cocoa plants, and the whole estate is protected by huge shade trees called immortelles or Madre de Cacao.

The cocoa trees themselves, I learned, are no ordinary trinitarios, but the offspring of a world-famous collection known as the Imperial College Selection (ICS). The ICS consists of cocoa pods collected from different estates in Trinidad during a research expedition in the 1930s. The pods were collected from trees which seemed particularly resistant to disease. From 100,000 trees, 100 pods were selected and replanted at the San Juan estate.

The reaping, fermenting, drying and grading of cocoa beans are still done in the traditional way at San Juan, and almost all work is done manually. The only disappointment was finding that the polishing of the beans is no longer done by “dancing” the cocoa — I had been hoping to give it a try myself.

The beans are bagged for shipment and stamped “FAS”, the Agostini family’s trademark, highly sought after for the manufacture of some of the world’s most expensive chocolate and confectionery.

 

The Future of Cocoa

Trinidad has given the world the ideal cocoa bean, and Valrhona has given Trinidad its highest honour in return. But what about the future? As diseases with ominous names like “black pod” and “witch’s broom” threaten the world’s cocoa industry, is anything being done to secure theobroma’s fragile future? Or are we just going to place the food of the gods into the hands of the gods?

Thankfully, the world’s scientists have been thinking ahead, particularly in Trinidad, which has led the world in cocoa research since 1930, first at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture and later at the University of the West Indies Cocoa Research Unit (CRU). We now know that Trinidad is home to one of the most extensive collections of theobroma germplasm in the world, located at several sites on the island. In the 1980s the European Development Fund approved a grant for the relocation of this material into a single consolidated gene bank. The resulting collection, the International Cocoa Genebank, Trinidad (ICGT), is recognised as a universal collection of cocoa germplasm and crucial to the future of the cocoa industry. If the world’s cocoa were suddenly wiped out by disease or natural disaster, all eyes would turn to Trinidad to kick-start the industry again.

CRU Director Dr David  Butler assured me that such an event is highly unlikely, but just to be safe I’ve started my own little disaster-relief chocolate collection. Meanwhile, the ICGT collection is being well cared for, and should serve to benefit all cocoa-producing countries — and chocolate lovers — well into the next millennium.

 

The cocoa woods were another thing. They were like the woods of fairy tales, dark and shadowed and cool. The cocoa pods hanging by thick short stems were like wax fruit in brilliant green and yellow and crimson and purple. Once on a late afternoon drive to Tamana I found the fields flooded. Out of the flat yellow water which gurgled in the darkness the black trunk of the stunted trees rose. 

— V. S. Naipaul

 

CHOCOLATE MORSELS

• Like wine, chocolate contains phenol, which reduces the risk of heart disease by preventing the formation of plaque in the arteries

• The Mayans and Aztecs used chocolate to anoint newborn children on the forehead, face, fingers and toes in a rite resembling baptism

• Chocolate was part of the rations for troops during the First World War. Today, it is found in the emergency kits of soldiers and mountaineers

• Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a naturally occurring chemical in the human brain, usually released when we fall in love

• Fifty percent of women interviewed prefer chocolate to sex