Transmissions from Trinidad

My, how the time flies. I can’t believe it’s been over two months since I had the wonderful opportunity to come into contact with cacao farmers and chocolate makers half-way around the world in Trinidad.

After a tip from a fellow East Hawaii Cacao Association member (Thank you, Sherry!), I reached out to Megan Giller of Chocolate Noise and asked to be considered for a scholarship to her public tasting, Decolonizing Cacao: Tasting With the Alliance of Rural Communities.

I was delighted when I was accepted, and even though the tasting portion didn’t arrive in time for the online workshop due unexpected shipping delays, I didn’t feel left out at all during the actual event. In fact, I quite enjoyed exploring the package later at my leisure with my curious son, without the added distraction of doing it during a live online event. 

Contents: cacao beans, cocoa balls, roasted cornmeal, stingless bee honey, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, drinking chocolate, chocolate bar

But more on that later.

The workshop, while hosted by chocolate noise, was led by Gillian Goddard, co-founder and co-director of the Alliance of Rural Communities (ARC) in Trinidad.

This involved a delicate juggling act of bouncing back and forth between thoughtful lecture and tasting, sharing our thoughts and a bit about ourselves as participants, and getting a virtual tour of the Brasso Seco cacao farm, a partner of ARC. 

This was done out of necessity. Gillian explained that they don’t have a reliable power grid at the cacao farm. Organizing the virtual tour and workshop was a major undertaking on their part, requiring a lot of coordination and prerecorded segments on standby if they suddenly lost connection for too long. Luckily, things proceeded fairly smoothly and their back up videos weren’t needed.

It was so comforting to see farmers in a country half a world away working in very similar conditions with this plant I have come to know and love. It all looked surprisingly familiar, especially the struggles with rain and humidity. I was both relieved and in awe of the fact that even in our small corners of the world, we are all part of a larger global network of people connected by cacao. We can all learn from each other and grow together.

An aspect of their local chocolate community I admire, is that ARC sells locally produced cocoa butter to their chocolate makers. Many of Hawaii’s chocolate makers have found that some additional cocoa butter besides the naturally occurring cocoa fat in their cacao beans is needed to make their chocolate to their preferences. However, very few have the equipment needed to make it themselves, and with none currently available for sale locally, most rely on imported cocoa butter.

As for the aspect of “Decolonization”, a term I’d hadn’t heard before this workshop, I found Gillian’s description of it quite accessible, which I guess was her larger point, decolonization is all about accessibility. It’s about breaking down the barriers that kept Trinidad famers from knowing for hundreds of years what their exported cacao beans became and how to make it; it’s about getting and sharing access to resources when their country’s infrastructure (an unstable power grid, for example) was not built with their needs in mind; it’s about trying to rediscover the unwritten history of their people’s interaction with cacao pre-colonization; and most of all, it’s about creating a culture where your needs as people, as a community, are put before profit for profit’s sake.

I was hit with an uncomfortable realization; even in a country whose formation is famously based on claiming independence due to the destructive human rights violations of colonization, certain aspects of colonization that ARC seeks to change, hit far too close to home for comfort.

While I feel incredibly privileged that here in Hawaii the cacao industry is so new, and that we get to build up the industry we want to see from scratch; Unlike in Trinidad, where small farmers are striving to change an industry entrenched in a history of abusing them for the convenience and profit of foreigners, I wouldn’t resonate so much with the idea of building a community of cacao growers that support each other and have the ability to have a good quality of life, if I didn’t feel like cut-throat competition and abusive labor practices might be a possibility without careful oversight, even here in Hawaiʻi.

On first glance at the word “decolonization”, I wondered if its goal was to exclude the western cultural influences of the colonizing countries, in favor of strictly traditional indigenous cultural practices. But Gillian clarified that’s not the case; that thriving communities are influenced by each other and change, and that a thriving community is always the end goal of decolonization. She demonstrated this concept wonderfully during the cocoa ball tea tasting.

I’d never come across cocoa ball tea before, but this hardened sphere of unsweetened cacao, ground together with local herbs and spices has quite the history in the Caribbean, offering a hearty, nutritious, and affordable meal when served with bread to sop up the rich liquid.

After brewing and straining the tea, she asked us to pour in into several different cups and try it several different ways: straight; with western ingredients like sugar and milk; and with with pre-colonization ingredients like stingless bee honey, roasted corn meal and achiote.

One woman, when asked which was her favorite, seemed to feel guilty that she liked the one with milk and sugar the best, but Gillian encouraged her, saying there isn’t a right or wrong way to enjoy it. Gillian then went on to encourage us to experiment and mix flavors. 

Click the following link to see my tiny slide show video of making cocoa ball tea.

For my own tastes, I liked the plain cocoa ball tea best; I could taste more of the spices, and when drinking tea in general I usually prefer it unsweetened.

Second in my heart, was the corn meal with achiote drink; I loved the flavor of the roasted corn and enjoyed the plumping grain at the bottom as a bonus meal. Although I couldn’t really detect the achiote in the drink. It was my first time working with the spice and I might not have extracted enough flavor from the seeds when preparing it.

The milk and sugar combo had a very almost hot chocolate like profile I enjoyed. But it made me crave a proper, decadent hot chocolate.

The stingless bee honey, which has a citrusy tang and a watery consistency, when added to the cacao tea reminded me of a sour fruit tea, which is not my favorite. I liked it a lot more though after adding a little milk which dulled the sour edge.

Of the other goodies in our tasting, I loved the cacao beans, which had a strong flavor, not too dissimilar from some of the cacao beans I’ve munched on from Hawai’i.

My son loved the cacao beans too.

Which was surprising given how mellow the actual dark chocolate bar’s flavor profile was. Very light and fruity in flavor with a slight nutty edge, this bar took it’s time melting in my mouth. The mini bar was quite thick and contained imbedded cacao nibs, so I did end up crunching through most of the bar after the first few tastes.

I got to try some of ARC’s drinking chocolate, which comprised of sweetened chocolate shavings. Unfortunately, I tried to split the provided drinking chocolate between two separate glasses, one with water and the other with milk. I definitely preferred the one made with milk, but you can see from how light the color of the glass is that both were far too diluted.

I thought the idea was brilliant though. Shaved chocolate might be a great way to sell chocolate specifically for drinking in Hawaii. Most people I know wouldn’t want to go through the trouble of finely chopping or shaving a chocolate block every time they have a craving. Between trying not to melt the chocolate in your hand as you’re cutting it, and the amount of time it takes to get it into small, easily dissolved bits, the convenience is worth it.

The last of the package comprised of the cocoa butter and cocoa powder. The cocoa butter, although flavorless as you would expect a hunk of raw fat to be, held remnants of a swoon-worthy fragrance. I was torn between wanting to let a piece melt in my mouth and rubbing it all over my skin. Luckily, there was enough to do both.

The cocoa powder had a nice even flavor to it, and would have made a welcome addition to a baked good, but I opted to stir it into morning cups of coffee over the days that followed. I don’t usually drink coffee, but they paired together so well together, I couldn’t resist.

I hope I haven’t ranted too long, or incoherently. This experience gave me ideas and made me reevaluate some dynamics in my life, and as such I think it will be in the forefront of my thoughts for years to come.

Try as I might, I know my retelling is but a crude and pale ghosted image of what was a beautiful and intricate portrait, with hints of hidden depths. And I’m just so incredibly grateful to Chocolate Noise and the Alliance of Rural Communities for making it happen.

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