Given that I’m in a place where sex tourism is pretty common place, you could be forgiven for misreading the title of this post. It’s not what you think – though there is a tenuous link. The ‘C’ I’m referring to is the one that women often say they prefer to sex – chocolate!
Where am I going with all of this you might ask? Well today’s adventure was a trip to the only working cocoa estate in Tobago.
The HitchHiker’s Guide to (the) Galaxy
The journey there was pretty epic and involved hitching two separate cabs and a 20 minute walk through forest. The first leg of the journey was from Crown Point to Scarborough. Regular taxis don’t really exist here. It’s customary to flag down passing cars heading in the direction of your intended travel. The rule is simple. You literally stand on the street and point your finger in the direction you’re going and if there’s space in a car it will stop.
It takes a while to get your head around as you wouldn’t dream of jumping in a random car with a bunch of strangers in most parts of the world. The trick is to get the front passenger seat or be the first or last in the back seat. If you’re second in you get the ‘death’ seat in the middle and will invariably be squashed by passengers larger than you. The other option is death by groceries which happens when someone joins the car with their weekly shop! This is why you will sometimes see more affluent passengers paying for two seats!
Anyhow a short 15 minute journey to Scarborough set me back $5TT which is about 50p – bargain! I had a short but uphill walk in fierce sunlight to the taxi rank for cars going further up the island.
I was lured into a doubles stand en route and took in the local but often elusive breakfast staple. ‘Doubles’ is a common street food served in Trinidad and Tobago and is essentially a hot sandwich made out of two pieces of flat, fried bread with a filling of curried chick peas, chutney and optional hot sauce. It might not sound very appetising but boy does it taste good.
Belly full, I waited patiently for a car heading to Roxborough. This proved a little more tricky and after a while I managed to catch a maxi taxi – effectively a minibus taxi. Another bargain ensued at $9TT for a journey of roughly 40 minutes.
I arrived at The Cocoa Estate after an unnerving 20 minute walk uphill. I didn’t see another soul and whilst it was very peaceful the constant sounds of movement in the trees and bushes had my nerves on edge. I lost count of the number of lizards, iguanas and geckos that crossed my path.
The Hills are Alive….With the Smell of Cocoa
My first impression at the gate of the Cocoa Estate was that I felt like I had arrived on the set of a cross between The Sound of Music and Alice in Wonderland. Amidst the lush green hills I was greeted by a heavy-looking bell with a sign that said ‘Ring Me’. All that was missing was a gaggle of kids dressed in curtains and the Mad Hatter!
I was met at the estate by two of the key workers, Christiana and Mrs Gobin (aka Nan). I was also greeted by the pungent smell of cocoa beans drying in the sun. Surprisingly to me the beans didn’t have the rich chocolatey aroma I had anticipated but a rather more unpleasant smell that I didn’t associate with the yummy stuff I have the ability to gorge on for hours.
Christiana, a smiley but withered Tobagonian woman, of some 50 or 60 years, was guarding the impressive rows of beans when I arrived and was reluctant to leave them for a second lest the rainy season wet stuff arrive without warning! Apparently a touch of rain would render that whole harvest useless. The beans, arranged in lines on a large wooden tray, were exposed to the blistering sun for drying. They are turned approximately every 15 minutes between sunrise and lunchtime. As Christiana had to leave her watch she pushed the roof on wheels, that forms the Cocoa House, over the giant tray. Christiana’s fragile form belied the strength with which she manoeuvred the sturdy roof. Tobagonians are built of sturdy stuff!
Christiana handed me over to Nan and returned to ‘Bean Watch’. Having observed my inappropriate tourist attire and lack of mosquito repellent, Nan shared her citronella with me and promptly began her tour of the estate . Here’s the abridged, bullet-point version of the life of a cocoa bean!:
Cocoa trees are planted in lines and given the critical shade they need by banana tress planted either side. As the cocoa plants begin to mature and grow taller, the banana tress are chopped down and replaced by the Immortelle tree. These grow much taller and provide shelter from the blistering sun.
The cocoa pods are picked when they are a burnt orange colour. They’re then taken to the fermentry beside the Cocoa house where the pods are smashed open and the contents poured into wooden boxes, juice, beans and all. The beans inside the pod are covered in a thick white gel-like membrane. I sample one as instructed by Christiana and despite my reservations about the mucus-like texture, it tasted good – very fruity. Christiana bit open a bean to reveal the cocoa inside but dissuaded me from doing so because of the bitter taste.
The contents of the pods are deposited into three boxes and are covered with banana or fig leaves and left to ferment. The boxes have holes in the bottom to allow the juice to drain out and take up to 1,500 pods at a time. Every 2 days the beans are moved from box to another. This process happens for 6 days and on the 7th day the beans are transferred to the cocoa house for drying in the hot sun. Depending on the strength and duration of the sun the beans can take up to 12 days to dry out. Once dry they are shipped to the factory in France where they are turned into Tobago Cocoa Estate Chocolate.
A small pod houses approximately 20 beans and a large one 45 beans.
The Tobago Cocoa Estate uses only wooden tools and unlike some chocolate producers only the heat of the sun is used to dry them. This gives the most natural tasting chocolate possible.
Tour over there was only one job to complete before embarking on the return epic hitch hike back to base – tasting! I was handed a small square wrapped in gold foil and a stylish chocolate-brown wrapper. It was my Charlie and the Chocolate Factory moment minus the golden ticket anticipation. How to describe it without using a whole host of clichés? I’m opting for the obvious – it was simply delicious. Smooth, not at all bitter and influenced or not by the tour spiel, it did taste very natural. I wanted to buy some to take home for friends and family(read for myself) but in true Tobagonian style (read disorganised and non commercial), they didn’t have any to sell! The chocolate itself is manufactured in France and new supplies had not yet arrived at the estate. Apparently it’s sold in the UK in selected upmarket department stores but I really wanted to buy at source. I’m told it can be found in one store in Tobago so my next mission is to hunt that down before I leave!