A report by Stephon Nicholas for Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday.
Two centuries ago, sugar was the undisputed king of Tobago. But owing to the efforts of Tobagonian Duane Dove, owner and founder of Tobago Cocoa Estate, there is a new king in town – cocoa.
On 50 sprawling acres in Roxborough, the main ingredient for rich, delectable chocolates is grown.
If you ask Dove, he might argue his chocolates are the best in the world. He will get a chance to prove that very soon.
Last Saturday, at the European Bean-to-Bar International Chocolate Awards, held virtually, Dove’s Tobago Estate Chocolate Laura won silver in the plain/origin milk chocolate bar category. The award qualifies Dove’s product for the world chocolate finals later this year.
According to the competition’s Facebook page, “the bean-to-bar competition focuses on fine, craft and micro-batch chocolate makers who work directly from cacao beans to produce plain/origin and flavoured chocolate bars from Europe, the Middle East and Africa.”
It is not the first award won by the Tobago Cocoa Estate, but according to Dove, “This is the big fish.”
He told Newsday, “To win here means we’re doing something right…The quality we are talking about is Rolls Royce chocolate, not candy bars.”
He added, “When you making craft, artisan chocolates you would have all the raw material left in the bar – cocoa mask, cocoa butter. When you go a regular store or supermarket, what they’re selling might not have any cocoa butter but palm oil and vegetable fats. That defines the supermarket brands from the gourmet chocolate. The cocoa butter is a key ingredient in the final products. If you don’t have the cocoa butter you not gonna get that soft melt on the palate.”
Dove, 50, said the award lifted his spirits and those of his partners amid the gloom of the covid19 pandemic.
“We were all – myself, my staff and all our partners – elated by the news of the award and quite frankly, we needed a boost, in light of the challenges we have been faced with in 2020. Hopefully there will be more to come as we await results from another competition in December.
“We also, with this award, qualify for the International Chocolate Awards world finals coming soon.”
Dove said the covid19 pandemic has increased the demand for chocolate products, but the supply chain has been seriously disrupted.
“Because of covid19 we’re getting logistical problems to get cocoa from point A to point B. Since March we haven’t been able to produce new products.”
The Tobago Cocoa Estate sells chocolates mainly in the US, France and Denmark, but products are now reaching Australia and New Zealand.
At the National Cocoa Awards launch on Friday, Trade and Industry Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon revealed that between 2018 and 2019, cocoa farmers garnered $17.9 million in exports.
Dove, who has been involved in the industry for 25 years and making chocolate since 2010, said cocoa is a natural export crop for TT with tremendous potential.
“The wonderful thing is that we are blessed in TT (with) our Trinitario cocoa, indigenous to the islands. In Tobago we have some older varieties, which give a more intense taste and flavour in the chocolate products – an attribute we welcome.”
Dove grew up on a farm and learned by helping out.
“After O-Levels I went to Canada to study and enrolled in a culinary arts programme. I then moved to Europe to further my studies within wines and beverages, and got hooked on pairing artisan chocolates with fine wines and aged spirits. I focused specifically on combining aged Caribbean rum from the region with chocolates made from the best cocoa grown on the islands and deep South America. All these experiments led to my book Rum and Chocolate – A Journey Round the Caribbean.”
Dove, a trained sommelier, said the book “captures the spirit of Caribbean islands.”
On the Tobago Estate he is involved in every stage of production, from planting, harvesting, fermenting, drying and storing the beans right up to the production of the chocolates at factories abroad.
“At the end of the day, you sell beans to someone to make chocolate and they get all the name. I do not sell beans. This thing about selling cocoa is long-time thing. People want to pay you a pittance for your beans.
“Our goal is to create a chocolate of the highest and best quality.”
He said the Tobago Cocoa Estate is also a huge tourist attraction for the island, since he offers tours as well.
Dove works with the Tobago Tourism Agency Ltd and foreign agencies. As the estate is near the Argyle Waterfall, tours usually combine stops at both sites. Visitors can visit the waterfall, then come to the estate to savour “cocoa tea,” a chocolate bar and see the operations. People in the village also benefit when there are big events, through catering, he said.
It all started in 2006, when he got land from the THA and started planting cocoa.
“While planting we carved out land to accommodate tours, a plantation-style house and a boutique house.”
It usually takes four-six years before a cocoa tree starts bearing. A farmer will have to wait around ten years before the trees begin to reach full yields. Running a cocoa estate is hard work.
“Maintenance of the trees is paramount. Proper drainage, proper shading, regular pruning and field sanitation are key.”
Surprisingly, Dove said getting labour for the estate is difficult in Tobago, and workers are usually brought from Trinidad.
“We have a couple permanent workers, but most of the work is seasonal, whether it’s pruning or five acres to clear.”
Harvesting, from October to May, can generate two-three shipments of beans, which are sent via ocean freight.
Dove boasted his beans are the first in TT to receive 100 per cent organic certification, an achievement he is very proud of.
He said people are becoming more cognisant about what they consume and his chocolates can stand scrutiny.
“Research has shown palm oil causes cancer when heated above certain temperatures. Forests have to be cleared to get the palm oil.”
Dove said although his product might be slightly more expensive than some on the shelves, it is of the highest quality and its production was eco-friendly.
Dove said passing on the cocoa knowledge to the younger generation is crucial.
Although his two children are too young, Dove intends to teach them about the industry.
“Of course, to pass that onto the younger generation, that is how we have to get this thing to live on…If we don’t do that everything will be lost.”
He said most of his employees are elderly but he hopes more youths show interest in cocoa.
“You try to retain that knowledge and pass that on to the younger folks.”