All You Need is Love. But a Little Chocolate now and then Doesn’t Hurt
Riddle indulges its finer sweet tooth with Ashley Parasram, founder of the Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company and a champion of the island’s unique cocoa bean and culture
Article by Andy Barnham
For many the word chocolate is synonymous with big brands such as Cadbury and Nestle, the chocolate section at a supermarket or local newsagent can frequently be overwhelming. Indeed, messing with a beloved chocolate can have significant repercussions as Cadbury found out last year when they reportedly changed the recipe for Creme Eggs and lost £6 million in sales as a result. With ethical fishing, organically grown produce and interest in food on the rise, it is no surprise that consumers are now more attentive than ever over food origins and quality. The chocolate industry is no different and while there have always been purveyors of fine chocolate, the rise of boutique chocolate stores and brands has been noticeable in the past few years and London now even has it’s own chocolate festival which is now held twice annually.
Increasingly popular, as no extra flavouring is required, are fine or flavoured cocoa beans – which differ from bulk or ordinary cocoa beans – distinguished by a stronger flavour profile and grown in 19 countries globally. The fine Criollo and Trinitario cocoa beans are low yielding and therefore considerably more expensive than their Forastero bean cousin from which most large scale chocolate is produced. And yet in Trinidad & Tobago, the Trinitario bean has until recently been falling off the trees and left to rot. In addition to this, in 450 years of cocoa history, the island has never had it’s own fine flavour chocolate despite possessing the required technical and scientific data and advising international chocolatiers. A once thriving industry in Trinidad & Tobago (Cadbury once had an estate on the islands), cocoa collapsed due to disease and the Great Depression in the 1930s with petroleum becoming the main export from the 1950s onwards. High labour costs and a domestic cocoa board which was self purchasing beans and allegedly not paying farmers a fair price, has seen the cocoa industry marginalised for the last 50 years. From a height of 30, 000 tons of beans being exported one hundred years ago, Trinidad & Tobago now exports a mere 500 tons with this figure set to decline even further. The industry now stands at approximately 400 small scale farms and 200 estates between 10 to 50 hectares in size.
Into the fray comes Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company, the brain child of Ashley Parasram, a native of Trinidad & Tobago whose grandparents once worked in the cocoa industry. Working in collaboration with the government, the aim of T&T Fine Cocoa is to wake Lazarus and re-invigorate the industry into life. No longer classified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as a developing market due to the petroleum industry, Ashley has a three year agreement with the Inter-American Development Bank, one of the largest source of development financing for Latin America and the Caribbean, to develop support for farmers to access international markets. With a background in international development working for DfID, and experience in Finland, Indonesia and British Guyana, T&T Fine Cocoa represents a reconnection for Ashley to his roots and (cocoa) heritage. Indeed he sees his role as helping export the island of Trinidad & Tobago, not just exporting chocolate and this is re-inforced by T&T Fine Cocoa’s logo and branding; such is the importance of this, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Trinidad & Tobago were in the UK shortly after the launch of the brand to lend support. T&T Fine Cocoa’s jester logo represents not only the annual carnival, but has a direct link to the chocolate industry where beans at smaller farms will be, literally, ‘danced’ on to help clean and polish them, with the chocolate being available in tins, shaped like the islands’ steel drums. For a country reliant on oil and gas and where close to 40 per cent of food is imported, the growth of the cocoa industry couldn’t come at a better time. The current international oil conditions have led to a new Trinidad & Tobago six year low and crude oil has fallen from close to US$61 last June to US$43 in November.
In order to ensure profits are returned to the farmers and the industry sees the fruits of it’s labour, T&T Fine Cocoa control the whole bean to bar process. Advised and mentored by Anne Weyns, founder and owner of Artisan du Chocolat, in regards to retail, distribution and logistics, Ashley’s voyage from chocolate journeyman to chocolatier has been swift. Following two years of due diligence into the viability of the plan, it has been just one year from the opening of the factory in Trinidad & Tobago to launching T&T Fine Cocoa at London Chocolate Week in October 2015 and tins on the shelves. T&T Fine Cocoa currently comes in five flavours ranging from plain milk and dark chocolate to more exotic dark chocolate and scorpion pepper and milk chocolate and guava. With tentative discussions with Harrods and Charbonnal & Walker slated for the coming months, the market for Ashley’s delicious commodity is on the up.
Enquiries: Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company, www.ttchocolate.com
Artisan du Chocolate, www.artisanduchocolat.com