Saturday, January 1, 2011

Trip to a cocoa estate

While in Tobago recently, we went to visit a cocoa estate, specifically Tobago Cocoa Estate.  They offers tours, which I highly recommend.
We were met by the owner Duane Dove, who explained to us about his estate.
The first thing I learned is that this is not a cocoa plantation but a cocoa estate.  The difference is that a plantation is just all the same kind of crop.  An estate grows many different things.  This cocoa estate was only about 7 years old, is completely organic, and everything is done by hand, including clearing land and harvesting.  The beans are not sold to buyers, but are shipped to France to make single-estate chocolate, which is sold in France, London, Tokyo and various Scandinavian countries.

There are three main varieties of cocoa: Criollo, thought to be the finest type of beans, grown mainly in Madagascar and Venezuela, the Forestero, which is the bulk of all cocoa grown, less fine, more bitter, but strong, and Trinitario, which is somewhere between the two in quality.  All the cocoa in this estate was Trinitario.
Each tree only had a handful of pods, and each ripened according to the specific variety of plant it was.  Some were red when ripened, others were yellow.
The pods were often protected with green nets to camouflage the pods from the most troublesome pest: the parrots. Yes, those cute parrots we all love, love to snack on the ripened cocoa pods.  Besides the camouflage, the estate also brings in a falconer to try and attract hawks and other predators of the parrots to the area.
Each cocoa tree will start bearing fruit a few years after planting, and will continue bearing at maximum rate for about twenty-five years.  For each tree there is a banana tree planted to shade it for the first few years of the cocoa tree's life.  The estate has only had two harvests so far, but seems to be ramping up production quickly.

Later in the tour, they chopped open a cocoa pod, which opened to reveal a column of beans covered in a white flesh.  You can just take one of the flesh-covered pods and suck on it.  To me, the flesh tasted like citrus and banana.  If you opened up the bean itself, it looks purple at this stage.

The beans are fermented for several days, and then dried.  We went to where the coffee beans were drying in the sun.  This has to be carefully guarded.  If any rain got in, the whole batch would have to be thrown out.
A few other miscellaneous facts I learned:

  • Cheap chocolates are mostly vanilla and sugar flavor.  There is very little cocoa mass.  Most of the loss of mass comes from the fact that they separate out all the cocoa butter and replace it with palm oil.  The cocoa butter is then sold to the cosmetics industry.
  • I asked about Trinidadian cocoa tea.  The cocoa balls you get in Trinidad are very hard, and must be grated to get cocoa powder which you mix with boiling water, sugar, and a bit of milk to make a cocoa tea.  Compared to hot chocolate, it is pretty weak stuff, but the flavor is nice.  But why is it so weak?  I asked about this, and was told that the other chocolate has more sugar, milk and extra ingredients added to it to make it rich and creamy.  The Trinidadian cocoa balls you get are pretty much just cocoa mass and spices.  Also, the beans that make up these cocoa balls are C-grade cocoa beans, which due to their non-standard size or other attributes can't be used in normal exported cocoa.
  • In the estate, they have a number of interesting plants.  There are several coffee trees, which produce coffee for the consumption of the workers.  There are a variety of local fruit trees, like sugar care, gru-gru, Trinidad cherries.  They also had some Immortelle trees, which helps absorb excess water in the rainy season, and releases it in the dry season.
  • Most small cocoa farmers in Trinidad (and probably elsewhere as well) sell to a cocoa purchases, where the beans are mixed.  The farmer is paid by weight, so they have an incentive to over-water the beans to bulk them up.  This results in mildewed beans.
  • There is no store in New York just yet.  After this next harvest, we should be able to purchase the bars, which retail at around $15.