Food of the gods

We are preparing to leave a lively farmers’ market in the lush, north-eastern hills recently when our daughter rushes up smiling broadly and bearing in both hands a huge, golden present that she excitedly thrusts at me. Taken aback, I stare rather suspiciously at the oversized, orange, ovoid object and finally admit reluctantly to my equally surprised and openly amused family that I have no idea what to do with it.

As they laugh, I am therefore tempted to tell them all off in local parlance “carry yuh own bag ah cocoa” and warn that this gift must still be green for “when cocoa ripe it mus bus.” I had enough heavy burdens of my own without lugging around another weighty classic, however enticing and glowing, appeared this unexpected first fresh, gleaming Trinitario specimen plucked from a nearby tree that morning.

Coming from Guyana where my memories of cocoa are dictated by the fat, fragrant rolled sticks of coarsely home-ground, dried bean paste brought in from the Pomeroon and sold by Stabroek vendors, to the later silken expensive processed powders in imported tins, I appear apprehensive but then I remember a prescient Jamaican proverb, “One, one coco full basket.”

So little by little like the saying advises, between pestering my husband’s patient cousin who runs an organic farm in the far southern tip of Trinidad and perusing YouTube, I doggedly learn about painstakingly preparing my precious pod that is titled theobroma, literally Greek for “food of the gods” and cacao from the kakaw of native Mesoamerican languages Tzeltal, K’iche’ and Classic Maya, and cacahuatl in Nahuatl.

One of many legends tell of how the revered Aztec God of Wind and Learning, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered Sky Serpent so christened after his celestial abode in the Pleaides star cluster, stole the heavily guarded cacao tree from paradise for earth’s people to enjoy, gain wisdom and stay healthy.

He begged his divine counterpart who ruled the waters to provide rain for the seeds to germinate and thrive, and prevailed upon the goddess of love and beauty, no less, to bless the small glossy evergreen with pretty flowers.

Gathering the ripe pods, the generous Quetzalcoatl taught the indigenous people how to extract, ferment, dry and then slowly roast the seeds and he showed the women the best way to grind the grains and whisk them in water until foamy. The cold, dark, bitter liquid further aerated by pouring back and forth from one container to the next, was flavoured with chili, maize, honey, natural vanilla and a variety of spices and herbs.

But it was the Maya who left us the most compelling evidence of cacao as a domesticated, much loved and revered crop with references in their surviving book the Dresden Codex and traces in spouted ceramic jars from the site of Colha, Belize, dating to 600 BC. Recent findings of even earlier use as a fermented spirit by the mysterious Mokaya people, in Mexico go back almost 4,000 years ago. Treasured as currency and as a dowry in some places, the beans were even counterfeited by filling empty cacao shells with clay and some Mayan brides had to initially prove they knew how to make the hot beverage with the proper froth.

Termed xocolātl or “bitter water” the sacred drink was unsurprisingly favoured as a worthy offering to the gods, and once reserved for the nobles and priests. It is the basis for the word chocolate, among the world’s most popular treats and a growing US$100 billion annual industry. With the daily cacao price now around US$2,000 per tonne, according to the International Cocoa Organization, the crop is far more valuable financially than rice and sugar cane combined, with profits predicted by some experts to climb even higher.

Hard to grow, the cacao only bears within a narrow band of warm, tropical areas between 10 degrees north and 10 degrees south surrounding the equator. Even then it needs certain soil and conditions, including special temperatures, high humidity, steady rainfall, and light and shade. Yet, as worldwide cocoa demand increases, there are fears the pressured industry will fail to cope given the lack of genetic variation in cultivated cacao, which makes it vulnerable to pests, blights and climate change, jeopardising the long-term sustainability, scientists warn in a study published in the open access journal Frontiers.

Recent research confirms that the tree evolved in the biologically rich South America 10 million years ago and is remarkably much older than previously realised for an Amazonian plant species. At the time, the Andes were not yet fully elevated so cacao specimens today occur on both sides of the mountain chain.

The species’ early evolutionary origin is sweet news, the scientists note, since it suggests that cacao has had enough time to diversify genetically, with each wild population adapting to its local habitat. Such native variations could be crossbred into cultivated strains to make them more resistant and perhaps even create new flavours of chocolate.

Other reviews indicate that several genetic clusters were originally domesticated in modern Peru probably for the tangy-sweet pulp that surrounds the ancient Criollo seed strain, eaten as a snack and fermented into a mildly alcoholic beverage. Coincidentally, this area of greatest genetic diversity extends in a bean-shape encompassing the borders with Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. Climate models indicate that at the peak of the last Ice Age 21,000 years ago, when cacao habitat was at its lowest, this zone provided a critical refugium for the species.

Migrating humans later played an important role in distributing the crop over the wider Amazon Basin and further out into the Caribbean and Central America.

Traditionally, there are two main modern genetic groups, the finest and rarest “Criollo” of which few remain and the dominant “Forastero” like those from Guyana, with the third group, “Trinitario” recognised as the famous, flavourful and complex Trinidadian hybrid of the two. Stories recount that the spontaneous hardy, high yield mix appeared after a hurricane destroyed nearly all the local Criollo trees in 1727 and the plantations were replanted with Forastero imported from nearby Venezuela.

Trinitario has since spread to all the countries where Criollo formerly grew. Cacao is no longer king or even a prince in the twin islands or Guyana, with the Ivory Coast and other West African nations ruling as the world’s leading exporters but beset by criticism for using child labour to produce the cocoa purchased by Western chocolate giants Cadbury, Hershey and Nestlé.

Only late last month researchers announced that daily intake of cocoa flavanols helps protect human cognition and can counteract different types of decline. Enhanced working memory and improved visual information processing were reported in test cases, with women who consumed cocoa after a night of total sleep deprivation actually blocking their ensuing impairment.

With some 500 distinctive chemical compounds, natural cacao is believed to stimulate vascular nitric oxide to influence blood pressure control and help regulate organs like the heart, brain, pancreas and lungs. A well-known Harvard Medical School analysis showed that most of the Kuna Indians living off the Caribbean coast of Panama on low-lying isolated islands do not suffer from hypertension, stroke, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Researchers are convinced that it’s because they drink five or more cups of natural pure cocoa a day with little or no sweetener or milk. Another assessment last year reported on participants who consumed between 200-600 milligrams of cocoa as registering noticeable declines in blood glucose, insulin and triglycerides, and hikes in HDL or “good” cholesterol.

As for the rest of us incurable dark chocoholics and mere mortals – “when yuh have cocoa in de sun look out for rain.” Forget the brain boosting apps and enjoy a delicious array of artisan Trini chocolates and a truly hot cocoa with perhaps smoky Parika and Penal chillies, prepared from tasty beans sold by women’s groups like Mabaruma’s Blue Flame, and San Antonio’s co-operative farmers.

ID is inspired to drink more raw cocoa after considering that the classic contoured Coca-Cola bottle was designed from a slimmed down 1915 prototype of a Theobroma cacao pod copied from an encyclopaedia illustration, and favoured for its “elongated shape and distinct ribs.”

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