More Than Chocolate

The world's finest cocoa surrounds me. As prized and rare as beluga caviar. Holding seeds of gold that fetch exorbitant prices on the international market. And here I stand in Lopinot village, in the heart of Trinidad's famed cocoa country, with the treasured cocoa plants at my feet. They remind me of a carefree childhood, when we'd find cocoa pods scattered about, suck the rich pulp off the seeds and then spit them back onto the ground. We did not know that what fell so easily from our lips would grow into plants like these. Used by master chocolatiers in Europe. Crafted into exotic spa elixirs. No, like most Trinidadians, I never tasted the world-acclaimed chocolate made from these precious seeds until I left the island. And even then, I had no idea what I'd left behind.

Jude Lee Sam is sitting in the shade of his cocoa-drying house in Gran Couva, set among the Montserrat Hills and widely considered the prime cocoa-growing land in Trinidad, if not the world. The scent of fermenting cocoa, moldy and somewhat smoky, drifts around us. Jude Lee inherited and now single-handedly farms 10 acres. Even on the hottest days he works hard, pruning trees, harvesting pods, digging out seeds and fermenting them. I've asked him why some say growing cocoa in Trinidad is a hopeless cause.

"It is a tough business," he says. "Labor is the main problem."

No one in Trinidad wants to work in agriculture, especially not in cocoa. It didn't used to be this way. Well before the oil boom made this the richest country in the Caribbean, cocoa was king. It brought Spanish and French Creole planters here to become rich off the sweat of our ancestors — Jude Lee's and mine. Africans, indentured Indians and Chinese. Ancestors whose bloodlines still play in the corners of his eyes, in the café au lait skin we share, the fullness of our lips.

As a child, though, I didn't know the bitter hardship of harvesting cocoa. It's backbreaking work that must be done with hand, cutlass and cocoa knife. It is work that Trinidadians now scorn. They strive instead to work in oil, as Jude Lee Sam once did as a wildcatter on an offshore rig. So farmers are often left with fulsome crops and not enough pickers to pull the precious pods from the branches. Often, the pods simply rot in the fields.

All of which makes Jude Lee's gentle smile, and his story, so heartening. You see, he used every penny he earned for eight years on the oil rig to come back and rehabilitate his grandfather's cocoa lands. So he could labor, often alone.

Jude Lee walks me through fields where he proudly and lovingly shows off his progeny, the budding cocoa trees. On them are pods in various stages of ripening. Some are vibrant orange, others red like autumn leaves. The youngest ones are pistachio green. After, we climb to the top part of the cocoa house, where he rolls back the sliding roof to let in the sun. We kneel next to a small pile of beans and I scoop them up in my hand and inhale them deeply. This is the stuff. This is brown gold.

"Have you had chocolate made from these beans?" he asks.

"Yes, I have," I say. "The best in the world."

"One day, I will too," he says, still smiling.

His comment takes me aback. He has never tasted Trinitario chocolate. I ask him why he works so hard to produce the makings of a near-perfect product he has never known. He shrugs. "I love it, I guess. It's our heritage. Our history."

The truth is that Jude Lee is a man of faith who spends his limited free time composing modern hymns for children to sing at the village church. In his home, images of Jesus look down benignly from every corner. "You know," he says, "I am named for the patron saint of lost causes."

Like Jude, most of those tasked with shepherding cocoa from seedling to fermented bean never taste the fruit of their labors. The chef in me longs to take some of the beans with me. To break them open, to inhale their aromas, to experiment with them. But I cannot because growers in Trinidad must adhere to a strict government buying system. I open my hand and let the beans fall back onto the pile between us. They clink loudly against the wooden floor.

Thousands of cocoa trees stretch as far as my eyes can see. This is San Juan Estate, just down the road from Jude Lee Sam's one-man operation, but a world apart. The estate manager is another Jude, Jude Solomon. Whereas Jude Lee Sam works upon faith in God and other small-farm Trinidadians, Jude Solomon links his future to science and big cocoa. San Juan Estate was once a prime holding of the Agostini cocoa dynasty, and it supplies France's prestigious Valrhona chocolate maker. But this mega-operation, like the small one up the road, might be facing a last stand.

Jude Solomon talks of labor problems while we drive around the estate grounds in his air-conditioned truck. The work is no easier in these fields than it is on smaller farms in these hills — there is just more of it. As he maneuvers the truck, he tells me that he has worked in commercial agriculture his whole life and that he has managed coconut estates, cashew farms, and other fruit and vegetable enterprises.

"They are," he says, "lazy man's work."

His heart is with the cocoa. There is much skill and practice in growing cocoa. There's toil. And not a little adoration and love.

"Cocoa is like a woman," he says. "You have to preen it, pet it, give it a beautiful area to live. Only then will it bear for you."

When we return to the estate's field office, a very large barnlike structure that also houses a nearly 80-year-old machine that sorts dried beans by size, several day laborers laze on the steps. One young man interrupts his own boisterous banter about the women he will meet tonight and the drinking he will do.

"Afternoon, father," he calls out, using the familiar old-time address for an elder.

It all has to be frustrating. This estate is one of the most productive and promising commercial cocoa enterprises on the island. World demand for cocoa increases yearly, as do prices. Scientists at the University of the West Indies Cocoa Research Unit say only three countries in the world produce what is known as Fine Flavor Cocoa: Venezuela, Ecuador and Trinidad. Of them only Trinidad has maintained ratings consistently near 100 percent for flavor and quality. It is right here. Yet Trinidad cannot meet the demand for its perfect cocoa. And in the fields are pods, loaded with so much potential, that just fall to the ground.

As we part ways I ask Jude Solomon about cocoa's future in Trinidad. He scans the trees trailing off in the distance, and he shakes his head. "Darlin', I just don't know."

Sadness? Not exactly. This is where he wants to be, near the beauty of these fields. His mood is a kind of tabanca — what we Trinidadians call longing for unrequited love. Cocoa in Trinidad is a fickle mistress, slipping away even as you hold it in your hands.
Paul Merry is liming on the veranda of the estate manager's house at Deseada, a remnant of the once-great estate his family held in Santa Cruz. Paul is the great-grandson of C.C. Stollmeyer, the most prominent name in Trinidad cocoa and the builder of an Irish-style stone palace called Killarney. It's a castle built on the fortunes of cocoa.

"There is still money in Trinidad cocoa," Paul says, looking at the gorgeous decay around us. One hundred years ago he and I would never have been together on this estate, speaking as equals. "It is a unique product in the world market."

But what about the labor problem? And the uneasy relationship between cocoa and what it means to people of his ancestry versus people of an ancestry like mine?

"I don't know if there is a solution," he says. "I hope workers will realize if they work, we will pay them a fair wage."

A few days later, on Trinidad's sister island of Tobago, I sit on a bench with one of those workers, a small 65-year-old Indian woman named Christiane Gobin. She works a cocoa estate with five relatives, the only dependable labor force she can muster in a world where agriculture is viewed with scorn. Local lore has it that no one knows how to coax a tree into production better than Christiane. Barefoot and bandana'd, she holds a cutlass easily at her side. She can "dance the cocoa" better than any machine, rubbing wetted, fermented beans beneath her feet to polish them into a high gloss.

I ask her why she does this hard labor. She is a pensioner, after all, and cocoa is a hard business for a woman. Besides, it is the men who lead cocoa dynasties in Trinidad. It is men who wrest glory from the pulpy pods. Men like C.C. Stollmeyer and even Christiane's boss, Duane Dove, the estate owner who promotes Trinidad chocolate to the European elite. What does she care, I ask, if the pods rot on the trees? She will get her days' wage regardless. What does it matter if the best seeds make it to market, when she has never even tasted the elegant bliss of a tablet of pure Trinatario chocolate?

"This cocoa is what we know. It is in our blood. If these trees are lost, we all lose," she says quietly, cocking her head toward the fields below. The trees do not belong to her, yet she has coaxed each one from seedling into full bearing. And with deep pride she dreams of the day when sacks of fermented cocoa leave this place, bound for the world market.

For a moment she does not speak, seemingly mesmerized by the trees stretching far into the distance. I gently repeat my question. "Surely, is it worth it?" I murmur.

Christiane finally turns her gaze from her beloved trees and looks at me. Her forehead and cheeks are moist with perspiration. But her eyes shine and her voice is firm, immovable. "Yes, Miss," she says respectfully. "We are going to see it through."