The Spice Necklace Blog

Ann's Blog

Port of Spain, Trinidad:
November 30, 2010
Cocoa, Puffed: A Delectable Conference

Sweet, rich, brown: “a very sexy product,” Professor Ramesh Deosaran, president of the University of Trinidad and Tobago, said when he gave his opening remarks at the first ever Caribbean Fine Cocoa Forum at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Port of Spain last week. More than a hundred people connected to the business of “fine cocoa” had gathered to discuss their problems and opportunities – to figure out how, in a nutshell, “to make cocoa king again” on islands such as Trinidad and Tobago. I was there to listen – and (okay, I confess) have a taste or two.

Fine cocoa, as opposed to bulk cocoa (which goes into making cheap candy and other low-end chocolate products) represents only 5% of the cocoa market in the world, but it’s the top 5%, much in demand by high-end chocolatiers. Only nine countries produce and export fine cocoa exclusively, and five of them are in the Caribbean: Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St. Lucia, Dominica, and Jamaica.

The starting point: A table of
fresh-from-the-tree cocoa pods
at the Caribbean Fine Cocoa Forum
The time is right for fine cocoa, we heard: World prices are high (they’ve more than doubled since 2004), consumer demand is high (chocolate is right up there with coffee as one of the most frequent purchases by specialty food consumers, and, because it “makes people happy,” it does very well in a recession), and the trend towards differentiation of the “end products” by country, region, and even estate is a favourable one for Caribbean producers.

But one basic message came through the presentations time and again: the need to rethink the “value chain.” Most of the value is in the end product – chocolate – yet there isn’t a lot of the “end product” currently being produced in the Caribbean. As Kent Gammon of Jamaica’s Cocoa Industry Board pointed out: If one Jamaican chocolate bar was consumed by each of Jamaica’s tourists, it would increase the revenue base of the cocoa industry on the island by $US14 million.”

The coffee breaks between the sessions were also highly informative, not to mention mouthwatering. A handful of small-scale entrepreneurs who are already operating at the “value-added” end of the cocoa business had their wares on display in a modest expo outside the conference rooms. Among them was Michelle Smith, founder of Jamaica’s Chocolate Dreams (, who, I can attest, makes a chocolate-covered, rum-steeped cherry that will have you swooning.

With flavours like ponche de creme, mango pepper, ginger rum, guava, and sorrel, there's no doubting that Cocobel's confections are from the Caribbean
But it was Isabel Brash, of Trinidad’s Cocobel (, who really stole my chocolate-loving heart. Her filled bonbons – their soft centres are infused with Caribbean flavours such as sorrel, guava, passion fruit, ginger rum, and mango pepper – are so exquisite that you hate to bite in. But once you do.… Suffice it to say that I contacted Isabel the day after the forum to place an order for a few gifts for friends (including my best friend, Steve, once he agreed to share with me). Isabel started to make her confections about two years ago, she told me. “My brother had some cocoa on his estate [in southern Trinidad]. I asked him to bring some beans home for me, and I started to play. It took over my life.” Her background is in architecture, which is why she wanted her chocolates to look as good as they taste. She processes the fruits for the fillings herself – totally natural, no preservatives – so they’re “best enjoyed within two weeks,” and they require strict temperature control (but no refrigeration; when chocolate is refrigerated, she says, it picks up the flavours of other foods). Which means her bonbons can’t be sold very far from where they’re produced – in her home kitchen. Luckily for us, Isabel lives in Westmoorings, not far from downtown Port of Spain, and just a couple of miles from where Receta is currently docked.

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