To Dance The Cocoa Again
If you love all things chocolate, chances are you were at this weekend’s World Cocoa and Chocolate Day Expo hosted by the Cocoa Research Centre at UWI, St. Augustine. Amidst many exhibitors selling anything and everything cocoa-based, gems such as chocolate popcorn and chocolate jerk chicken stood out. There were models emblazoned with locally-fashioned jute cocoa bags and cocoa-inspired outfits strutting in the aisles as vendors willingly gave chocolate samples to anyone that would take. Is it thus safe to ready our feet to dance the cocoa again?
Trinbagonians are the loudest boasters of how amazing our local cocoa is, and we are just as likely to reach for a sugary imported bar instead. Elsewhere in the world, our Trinitario bean has been celebrated with international awards and steeply-priced products at high-end shops, but here we are still wiping the yampee from our eyes after a century of cocoa slumber.
Existing generations have only ever known sugar or oil and gas, so it’s hard to believe that cocoa once ruled our economy from 1866 to 1920. At the time, our little twin island at the bottom of the Caribbean chain was supplying approximately 20% of the world’s cocoa. We’ve fallen a long way since then, through circumstances not entirely our fault, but a rekindled fire may be underway in Trinidad and Tobago’s cocoa industry.
The next time you head to the grocery, take a look at the chocolate selection in the snack aisle or at the cash-register shelves. A decade ago, Charles Chocolate bars dominated these spaces alongside other foreign brands, using cheaper, imported bulk/ordinary cocoa to keep their products affordable. Today, we are finally seeing a shift as Trinitario-bean chocolate options are steadily holding their place on the local market.
Chocolatiers in Trinidad and Tobago have a natural advantage owed to our soil and climate – we are only one of 11 countries to solely produce fine/flavour cocoa beans. Unlike the other main bulk/ordinary type, fine/flavour beans offer a more varied scope of flavours embodying floral, fruity, nutty, spiced and caramel notes. Plainly put, almost any local bar you grab from the shelves is high on the quality scale.
Local companies largely produce single-origin or small-batch chocolates. Some like Omarbeans and Cocobel are established businesses, and others like Biche and Cushe are initiatives aimed to create financial independence through cocoa production in rural communities. Some like Ortinola Great House control the entire bean-to-bar process on their own estate, and others like Philippa’s Garden oversee only the chocolate-making portion. Despite their differences, what all of these chocolate producers share is a true appreciation for the quality of our cocoa, a commitment to building a sustainable industry, and a passion for bringing the joy of chocolate to customers.
Saltin’ has been in contact with local chocolatiers to get a sense of where our cocoa industry is headed, and a few of their stories are featured below. Admittedly, we could not cover every local company, and those named here are certainly not reflective of any ranking or preference.
A common challenge is the labour-intensive nature of cocoa picking, which still has to be done by hand, along with the lengthy process that follows before a bean becomes useable. For this reason, the cocoa industry is still shaped by a small-business model as opposed to large-scale production. This does not necessarily translate to a gloomy outlook; as Richard Trotman from House of Arendel put it, “In recent years, there has been an exciting movement of entrepreneurs and cocoa makers transforming cocoa into chocolate products for local and international markets. We are hopeful that with continued commitment, progress will be made.”
For the most part, chocolatiers remain understandably cautious, yet continue to find motivation in stable market demands and increased awareness about our bean. With cocoa hybridisation, we’ve reinforced the industry against the weaknesses of the past. Now, more than ever, we need to ride the second wave of cocoa at a time where economic diversification is an obligation.
According to Mariella Pierre-Peschier from Philippa’s Garden, “I have seen not only new local chocolate companies emerge in the last 2 years but expansions of the pre-existing ones. This has allowed locals greater exposure to, and a greater appreciation for, locally made chocolates. Consequently, the demand for local chocolates is slowly increasing to the point that they are available not only in gourmet shops but in regular supermarkets as well.”
So how do connoisseurs and chocolate-lovers alike choreograph dancing the cocoa again? We can start by embracing the distinct quality that our locally produced chocolates have over imported brands. Before the world owns cocoa for us, let us own cocoa ourselves. And the next time you get a chocolate craving, reach for that local bar instead.
Saltin’ would like to sincerely thank the people at Ortinola Great House, Philippa’s Garden and House of Arendel who took time to respond to our questions, and to Philippa’s Garden for graciously arranging samples. We remain avid supporters of these and other local companies as they bravely fight to keep the local cocoa industry alive.
ORTINOLA GREAT HOUSE
“We make what we like to eat”
Ortinola’s chocolate bar labels are a display of their heritage pride; a 130-year-old architectural beauty topped by a salmon-coloured roof nestled in the hills of Maracas Valley, known as Ortinola Great House. This iconic building is a symbol of a rich history which includes ownership at one time by the famous Cadbury Brothers, a fact the current owners relay with a beaming smile. Family-owned-and-operated Ortinola estate is a true farm-to-table operation where the entire process is accomplished in-house – from planting cocoa seeds to hand-wrapping finished products. Their offerings on the local market include dark chocolates, rum and sorrel truffles (by order), cocoa nibs, spice bars, cocoa butter and cocoa powder. Beyond our shores, Ortinola’s beans were once used by TT Fine Cocoa Company in a limited-edition box in a partnership with world-famous department store Harrods in London. Their 70% 35g bar retails at TT$35.
“This company is in honour of our mother, Philippa”
Perhaps it’s because they work with chocolate all day, but the folks at Philippa’s radiate a friendly, caring warmth that could only have been born out of a family business to honour a mother’s love and care. Although Philippa’s Garden doesn’t grow their own cocoa, they maintain a strong commitment to using as many local products and services in their chocolate production. Their entire bean-to-bar process is done, mostly by hand, at a small factory in Arima using beans from Brasso Seco. Philippa’s range of products embodies their philosophy to support local – dark, milk and white bars, bon bons and truffles, all plain or infused with common Trinbagonian flavours like soursop, sorrel, mammy apple, coconut and rum. Philippa’s also presents their traditional cocoa tea in the shape of a rose alongside a bay leaf from the garden that was once lovingly cared for by Philippa herself. Their 70% 30g bar retails at TT$20.
HOUSE OF ARENDEL
“The pursuit of quality begins with the bean”
House of Arendel brings exclusivity to an already-niche market by having two bean sources – Montserrat Hills in Gran Couva, Trinidad, and their company-owned Bocage Estate in St. Mark, Grenada. This allows for fine-tuning of the input formula to achieve an ideal taste profile and price. House of Arendel proudly refers to themselves as “tree to chocolate” producers, placing emphasis on traceable bean sourcing, sustainable partnerships with growers, fair conditions and wages for workers, and quality bean selection. The result is a variety of bars either in bright-red wrappers sporting the House of Arendel logo, or in the 100% Grenadian bean version called ‘Jouvay’. Other offerings on the local market include cocoa tea balls, cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, and they also export to international markets on order. Their 65% 25g bar retails at TT$21.