Cocoa in the Caribbean: a resilient farming
Hello dear hummingbird,
Today’s article is a rather gourmet one since we will be talking about cocoa (#teamchocolatelover). Cocoa farming, although not widespread and unfortunately still unprofitable in some islands, plays an important role in the Caribbean.
History of Cocoa
Originally from the Amazon, the cocoa tree, whose beans, contained in the cocoa pods, have multiple uses, was rapidly integrated into the agricultural and cultural world of Native American societies from northern South America to the lowlands of Central America and southern Mexico.
Cocoa was particularly associated with the most important events of life. From the rite of passage to puberty (in which the bodies of young boys were coated with a mixture of water, cocoa powder, and flower petals) to marriage requests and the cults of the God of merchants, the cacau and chacau haa were everywhere at the heart of Mayan civilization.
The sweet chocolate drink we all know was born in the Carmelite Convent of Oaxaca when the Nuns replaced pepper and corn with honey, musk, and orange blossom water. The recipe was a huge success in New Spain (from the 16th century) and then in Europe. The honey was then replaced by the sugar that was produced locally. The cocoa drink is so popular that new cocoa plantations are born.
Soon after, the French were also interested in the creation of plantations in Martinique, where cocoa was reportedly introduced by a Portuguese Jewish merchant, Benjamin Dacosta, around 1660. The earthquake that struck the island in 1727 destroyed much of these very fragile shrubs, but despite this catastrophe, the cultivation of cocoa did not disappear from the island (and even spread to Guadeloupe and Guyana as early as 1730). However, it will often be supplanted by the cultivation of sugar cane, which is much more resistant.
There are different varieties of cocoa, producing fruits called pods, whose seeds will allow to have cocoa beans. These pods have different characteristics that can determine the final quality of the chocolate.
– Forastero (80-90% of world production) originating in the Amazon. Mainly grown in Africa, Brazil, and Ecuador. Rustic variety.
– Criollo (1-5% of world production), originating in Venezuela. Grown in Latin America (Caribbean, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia). Fine and aromatic, sweet and slightly bitter.
– The Trinitario (10-20% of world production), from the crossroads of the previous two, appeared in Trinidad in the 18th century to compensate for the losses caused by hurricanes in the more fragile criollo crops. Fine but less intense aromas than criollo.
– The nacional forastero, produced in Ecuador. Aromas finer than a current forastero.
– Amelonado, a local Martinique cocoa bean, is an endemic variety better known as “Martinique Creole”. The region is seeking recognition by an AOC*, which would allow production to be restarted.
The most common type of cocoa found in the Caribbean is criollo. It is the rarest and most sought-after of the beans.
They cover only 1 to 5% of world production. The main characteristics of this cocoa tree are its pale pink flower, with an orange-yellow or reddish-orange pod when they mature. The surface of the fruit is rough. The beans obtained are plump, almost round, very light in color, up to white. It has a weak and slightly bitter fragrant aroma, with a delicate taste. After treatment, very fine and aromatic cocoas are obtained. They are considered the best cocoa and are the main ingredient used in luxury chocolates. These cocoa farmers usually harvest only two crops a year, in June and December.
Cocoa in the Caribbean
The Valcaco association is trying to develop a structured exceptional sector by bringing together the various local players and promoting agroecological techniques without any use of phytopharmaceuticals. There are three varieties of cocoa: criollo, forastero and trinitario.
In Guadeloupe, cocoa production was one of the first riches of the Leeward Coast, but it was wiped out in 1928 by one of the most violent cyclones in its history, with winds of more than 230 km/h. During the reconstruction of the affected islands, cocoa cultivation was replaced by other more profitable ones. Some craftsmen, however, still process local beans into chocolate, mainly sold as direct sales in the form of kako* sticks. This traditional chocolate can be eaten grated in hot water and accompanied by spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, or nutmeg
In Saint-Lucia, the manufacture of chocolate still holds a prominent place in its development strategy because its valuation is very much linked to the new tourism activity of the island. When the plantations closed, Masters’ houses were recycled into individual hotels or tourist rentals.
Aware of the potential of this very attractive product and intimately linked to its local history, restaurants and spas, also value it. Chocolate has even become a key ingredient in the island’s gastronomy.
Haiti is slowly developing its cocoa sector to provide better incomes for thousands of modest farmers and to break the cliché of a renowned gastronomic art such as the square meadow of rich countries. Haiti’s annual production of 5,000 tonnes of cocoa pales in comparison to the 70,000 tonnes produced by the neighboring Dominican Republic. By setting up its fermentation center in North Acul-du-Nord, 15km from the country’s second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, in 2014, the company Product of the Islands (Pisa) launched itself on the market.
Cocoa farming, a sustainable crop
Cocoa cultivation is suitable for agroforestry, a system in which it is possible to see the need to plant crops on the same plot other than trees and/or introduce livestock. This contributes to pest control, fertilization promotes a balance but also allows the farmer to diversify his sources of income. It, therefore, contributes to biodiversity and respect for the soil.
What are the other uses of cocoa?
- cocoa butter, obtained from beans, is highly valued in the cosmetics field. It contains vitamin E, a natural antioxidant, but also vitamins A, B, and C. A cocktail of energy and benefits for the body and skin. It also contains omega 9, which are very good for the cardiovascular system.
- cocoa liquor is very appreciated in some cocktails
- cocoa pods and bean shells can be composted or used as a natural mulch to inhibit weed development
- electricity can be generated from crop waste (as is the case in Côte d’Ivoire)
Buy local cocoa
If you live on (or visit) a cocoa-producing island, take an interest in production techniques and make sure you consume the products:
- you will contribute to the development of the sector and thus the local economy,
- you will be sure of the origin of the products and the conditions under which they were produced (many countries still resort to inhumane practices on plantations today)
- you will participate in the sustainability of the know-how of the ancestors
*Kako Caribbean stick is a very ancient gastronomic tradition: after drying the beans obtained are roasted before being pounded. You get a greasy dough that is hand-shaped into a stick by rolling it over itself. After drying in the open air to retain its conical shape, the kako stick is packed before being used to prepare the famous Caribbean hot chocolate.