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Land of the ‘mystery’ cocoa
The melody of a cocoa rachette (house wren) pierces the stillness of the air. Brown cocoa beans, spread on the floor of an old cocoa house, are being sun-dried, their pungent scent filling the air. Cocoa juice drips from fermenting beans inside a stained wooden box. Yellow and green barrack houses, relics of the colonial era, their front yards filled with flowers, line one side of the dirt trace leading into the San Antonio Cocoa Estate tucked in the Montserrat Hills in Gran Couva. This is the home of the “mystery” cocoa beans, fermented and dried in the simple traditional way, and prized by international chocolatiers like Scharffen Berger, a subsidiary of Hershey’s, and Guittard Chocolate Company of California, USA, producers of high-end dark chocolates.
Machine-dried beans are produced in quicker time by other farmers in nearby villages and other parts of T&T, but it is Montserrat’s cocoa that is sought after by international chocolatiers.
They search out the unique flavour of these “single domain” beans in Montserrat and selected parts of the world for their chocolates.This fine flavour cocoa is not traded on the international stock market, like bulk cocoa from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Montserrat farmers negotiate directly with chocolatiers for their prices. Ivory Coast cocoa, for instance, is traded on the stock market for around US$2,500 a ton, while Montserrat farmers can get between US$4,500 and US$6,000 per ton.
Just what makes Montserrat’s cocoa so different?
“We market it as sun-dried and processed in the traditional way,” said Rajiv Sookdeo, office manager at the Montserrat Cocoa Farmers Co-operative. The co-operative has set up a makeshift office on the estate in a part of a discarded cargo container. Sookdeo divided his time between paperwork in the office and tending to the beans outside with his father Ricky. “We still put the cocoa inside traditional boxes and cover it with fig leaves to ferment. I have a temperature gauge to know exactly when to turn them. “We put them out in the open cocoa house for drying and close back the roof in extreme sun. “Sometimes, we dance it to polish the beans.”
Cocoa farmer Jerome Pino had brought the beans he harvested all by himself from his seven-acre plot for fermenting, drying and selling at the San Antonio Estate. “Previously, I would harvest it and cover it with fig leaves for seven days to sweat it, spread it out on tarpaulin in my yard to dry, and then dance it to polish it. “I would then bag it and carry it to a cocoa agent (CCIB) in Tabaquite to be sold. “Now, I just harvest and all the fermenting, drying and exporting are done right here. “I have more time to spend cutting the grass between the cocoa trees in my field.”
Pino, a lighthouse attendant, cuts all seven acres by himself because no one in the village wants to work for $125 to $150 from 7 am to midday. “The weed whacker was the best thing invented since sliced bread,” he said. The unique self-draining Montserrat clay and the special Trinitario cocoa tree may be behind the prized fine flavour cocoa bean, farmers believe. But the mystery of Montserrat’s cocoa has not quite been solved. “The Cocoa Research Centre is doing a flavour assessment to understand why our cocoa is different to that from other parts of T&T and the world,” said Lee Sam, president of the co-operative.
Tests were also done on the cool climate of Gran Couva, ideal for cocoa cultivation. Montserrat Hills, according to folklore, was named by an old Spanish priest after he visited the area and found it looked just like Montserrat in Spain. There is a chocolate made from Montserrat’s cocoa which is marketed in France and called Gran Couva. Inspired Montserrat farmers are now proudly producing their own dark chocolates. Montserrat Hills Single Domain is made in a “factory” in Lee Sam’s estate house. Farmer Udesh Moonesar, under the logo of the Montserrat Cocoa Farmer Co-op, also makes his own Total Dark Chocolate. And Gran Couva Fine Dark Chocolate is made in Tobago from Montserrat’s beans. It is a proud achievement for Montserrat’s farmers who, just five years ago, were reeling from sharing small profits with the Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board (CCIB) and a broker. The farmers, who felt enough is enough, formed a group, then an association, and finally a co-operative. Now they directly export their own beans. “We removed the middle men. Most of them...” Lee Sam said. “The money is directed back to the farmers, who get a better price.”
Farmers now negotiate directly with chocolatiers for better prices. “We are still not there yet,” Lee Sam said. Chronic labour shortages and the high cost of fertilisers continue to plague the farmers, and international buyers still don’t give them the prices they want. “Sometimes they would say they could get the same beans in Costa Rica, Grenada, Dominica. “Our farmers would say fine, we would throw our cocoa in the river then. “You have to be tough to negotiate like this and have the backing, too. “You have to have a passion for it,” said Lee Sam, who resigned as an oil rig worker to work on his cocoa estate. It is during these times the co-operative, made up of about 50 small and big farmers, including a former principal, falls back on its own savings.
Making chocolates and opening their estates as tourist attractions bring in additional income.
The farmers get technical and other support from the Government which sees the co-operative as a model. There’s a move to repeal the oppressive colonial Cocoa Board Act and liberalise the industry, Lee Sam said. “There is no cocoa board right now. They removed the old board and are trying to replace it.” Farmers do not believe the Government owes them anything, financially.
“Ninety-nine per cent of our cocoa is exported to first world countries.”