A relic cacao tree nestles deep in the valleys of the Northern Range of the island of Trinidad in a sleepy cacao village called Brasso Seco. Moss hangs from this tree creating an eerie effect; its ripe, rough, “lagarta” (alligator) shaped pods only hint at their fascinating contents of pale-coloured, prized Criollo-influenced, flavourful beans.
This is the realisation of a cacao collector’s dream: ancient Trinitario cacao from the place where Trinitario originated. Likewise, across the numerous valleys in villages of Aripo, Lopinot, Naranjho, Cumana in North Trinidad and the steep terrains of Moriah, Runnemede and Lanse Fourmi in Western Tobago, cacao trees of mainly relic Trinitario genotype still survive, carefully conserved in farmers’ fields over the decades spanning from when cocoa reigned as king, in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, to the present day. The chocolate world owes these dedicated farmers a debt of gratitude.
Cacao scientists from Bioversity International and the University of British Colombia at Vancouver, joined forces with some from the Cocoa Research Section of the Ministry of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs (MFPLMA) and the Cocoa Research Unit (CRU) of the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago and conceived and fine-tuned an ambitious project to promote and utilise the latent treasures contained in the vast acreages of relic cacao still remarkably preserved in Trinidad and Tobago.
The World Bank accepted this project, from among more than 1750 proposals, as one of the 22 that received funding for two years in 2008. This project relied on the willing co-operation and assistance of 69 small cacao farmers, who have steadfastly conserved these relic (traditional) trees. The scientists from Trinidad and Tobago visited the farms, collected leaves, flowers and fruits, accompanied by precise GPS co-ordinates at each location, and characterised the trees to reveal a very diverse population. Pods were harvested and the beans fermented and dried under Trinidad and Tobago’s traditional cocoa processing conditions and then sent to the chocolate making laboratories of MARS, Inc. and CRU (UWI) for further processing and sensory evaluation that identified an array of wonderful fruity and floral flavours, typically inherent in the twin island’s famous cocoa flavour reputation.
A group of molecular genetics researchers from the University of British Columbia, in close collaboration with researchers from the US Department of Agriculture at Beltsville analysed the DNA extracted at CRU from the leaves of these selected cacao trees and created a novel molecular tool, which enabled them to distinguish many different types of these ancient cacao trees. Data on their origin as well as their flavour and agronomic characteristics will be included on a newly designed website that aims to provide chocolatiers and other interested persons with a sophisticated source of information on Trinidad and Tobago’s incredible wealth of cacao diversity and its allied flavours.
This project culminated in a Farmers Event, which received considerable attention in the national media and was held in a rustic building on a cacao estate in a historical cacao-growing area of Trinidad called Tortuga, Gran Couva. An impromptu visit by the Honourable Minister of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs, Mr. Vasant Bharath, was well received by all as were his comments on the many positive outcomes of this project and presentation of certificates and tokens to the participating farmers.
This, coupled with the first-time experience of the farmers tasting their own chocolates, orchestrated under the masterful guidance of Mr. Ed Seguine of MARS Inc. and Dr. Darin Sukha of CRU, created a lasting memory that still lingers in the minds of many of the participating farmers.
Mr. Jude Lee Sam, a farmer from the Montserrat Cocoa Farmers’ Cooperative, Gran Couva, Trinidad later recollected his experience of sharing the chocolates made from his cocoa with his friends and family. The latter were astounded to realise that they had been surrounded all their lives by a plantation of cacao trees yet never before associated them with flavours so wonderful. The younger members of his family have a vision, which can be used to inspire and compel a new generation of young farmers to become involved in the cocoa industry of Trinidad and Tobago.
The results of this project will be leveraged to provide significant economic benefits to farmers and stakeholders in the local cocoa industry. The 104 relic cacao trees identified will be cloned and conserved in local genebanks as very valuable Trinitario germplasm for distribution to farmers, and will be utilised for breeding new varieties with enhanced flavor and yield attributes to augment the already outstanding Trinidad Selected Hybrids.
Additionally, the sensorial flavor attributes of these relic cocoas, revealed during this project, will provide a gainful opportunity to target and organise a group of smallholder farmers to specifically produce, process and market these relic cocoas to the Montserrat Cocoa Farmers’ Cooperative. This cooperative is about to invest in equipment and infrastructure to manufacture chocolates locally under the skillful guidance of their youthful but well-trained chocolatier, Ms. Lesley-Ann Jurawan.
This initiative will accelerate and serve as a model in the expansion of value-added activities locally, which has governmental support since it will guarantee higher incomes for the cocoa farmers and a larger contribution to the national GDP. In addition, it will facilitate the branding of fine cocoas from Trinidad and Tobago based on genotype and traditional processing conditions.
This project has thus undoubtedly had a significant impact on the local cocoa community and policy makers, and is expected to result in further benefits in the future.
The following people also contributed to this blog: Kamaldeo Maharaj, Hannes Dempewolf, Darin Sukha, Frances Bekele, Pathmanathan Umaharan, Ed Seguine.