With the freshest organic produce, the finest cacao beans, and the hottest chili peppers, Trinidad and Tobago seems to have it all to satisfy even the most critical of palates. How does this twin-island state become a 7-time champion in the illustrious Taste of the Caribbean, and how does a country set a standard in culinary excellence unlike any other in the world?
From high-end restaurants in Port of Spain, to the street vendors and cafeteria-style counters in Maracas Beach, Trinidad and Tobago presents the best of their bold and blended cuisine. Home of the most “sought-after street delicacy” called Doubles, and the Moruga Scorpion pepper which is ranked as the second hottest chili in the world, Trinidad and Tobago is known for its vibrant heritage, cultural diversity, and a cuisine enriched by African, Indian, Chinese, European and Middle Eastern influences. Trinbagonian cuisine is an explosion of flavors from the amalgamation of remarkable tastes from these four different continents, and it is often described as having culinary traditions that can be found nowhere else in the Caribbean.
West African culinary traditions were brought to Trinidad and Tobago in the 1700s, while indentured servants from East India and China brought with them their distinctive spices and flavors in the 1800s. The Syrians and the Lebanese migrated to the country in the 19th century from the Ottoman empire, and colonial powers such as Spain, France, England and Holland, are part of the islands’ colorful history. If there ever was a perfect example of a ‘melting pot’, Trinidad and Tobago would be it. In fact, locals lovingly call their country “callaloo”, a famous side dish that is a delicious mash-up of different types of ingredients. In addition, with the freshest seafood and locally grown fruits and vegetables available in this pair of islands, it is like paradise for culinary professionals and food tourists. It is then no wonder for Trinidad and Tobago to win top culinary honors in this year’s Taste of the Caribbean culinary competition at the Hyatt Regency in Miami.
The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) hosted and organized the event in Miami that brought together the best chefs and mixologists from the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bonaire, Cayman Islands, Curaçao, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos. For the past 19 years that the Taste of the Caribbean competition has been around, Trinidad and Tobago has won the Caribbean National Team of the Year a whopping seven times. Followed by Barbados who has won three times, Trinidad and Tobago has a golden track record of winning the most number of times in this prestigious competition.
So why do they keep winning?
It is clear that despite Trinidad and Tobago’s multiple levels of complexity on various levels from politics, ethnicity, and religion; there is undeniably one thing that unites all Trinbagonians – their passion for their food. There is that unique flavor, that Trini taste that can be found across the culinary board in all local dishes, and it is referred to as “green seasoning”, a special blend of chive, garlic, onion, celery, pimiento pepper, thyme and chadon beni (made from cilantro like sauce), that is slightly varied and used by professional and home cooks.
With a culture that has so much love for soulful food thoughtfully cooked by grandmothers in warm and cozy kitchens, the excellent culinary DNA is part of every Trinbagonian. The people of the twin islands are protective of their culinary traditions so it makes perfect sense that a local chapter of Slow Food International exists in the country.
Active in 150 countries with over 100,000 members in 1,500 convivia or chapters, the International Slow Food Movement promotes local food and traditional cooking. Founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986, Slow Food’s philosophy is centred around three interconnected principles: food must be good, clean and fair. Basically, healthy food that has been cultivated under fair conditions and pay for the producers; and good food that has been produced without harming the environment, with a price tag that is accessible for consumers.
Slow Food is founded upon the concept of eco-gastronomy – a compound word that encapsulates the idea of the strong connection between the plate and the planet. Local chapters like the one in Trinidad and Tobago, encourage and promote local farmers, artisans, and food through events such as shared meals, tastings, tours, workshops, discussions, festivals, and farmers’ markets.
Part of the Slow Food Community that was launched in 2004 is the Terra Madre network, a platform that connects 2,000 food communities comprised of farmers, breeders, fishermen, cooks, academics, activists, and youth practicing small-scale and sustainable food production that is in harmony with the environment and respects indigenous knowledge.
In Trinidad and Tobago, some members of the Terra Madre network include the Fondes Amandes Community Reforestation Project, Mt. Plaisir Estate Organic Producers, The Trinidad and Tobago Goat and Sheep Society (TTGSS) and organic chocolate producers such as Cocobel, a small family-run artisanal chocolate business.
Trinidad and Tobago’s cocoa is considered one of the best in the world. The Trinitario bean is known as a better tasting, fine-flavored cacao that commands premium prices. Trinitario is hybrid cacao and its roots began in the 16th century when local cacao beans in Trinidad were being destroyed by pests so farmers helped save the industry by introducing Alamendo cacao from the Brazilian Amazon.
It is estimated that Trinitario beans comprise only 5-10% of the global cacao production, and furthermore, it has been declining for many years mainly due to the country’s dependence on the energy sector which pushed the cacao industry in the background. However, artisan bean-to-bar chocolate-makers like Cocobel are bringing life back to the dying industry in Trinidad and Tobago.
Speaking to the Caribbean Beat last year, Isabel Brash of Cocobel said, “We need farmers and chocolate makers to work together. I would love to see more and more younger people with great business minds getting into cocoa farming, and having direct relationships with chocolate makers.”
Other similar-minded chocolate-makers who believe that they can help stimulate agriculture into their communities are other players in the market in this rapidly growing sector like Tamana Mountain Chocolate and Sun Eaters Organics. Tamana Mountain Chocolate is located in the remote village of Mundo Nuevo in the hills of Trinidad, while Sun Eaters Organics works with plantations like the La Reunion Estate in Caroni, near the foothills of the Northern Range of Trinidad.
To motivate and uplift organic farming, Sun Eaters Organics pays at least 60% higher than the market price for organic cacao beans. The La Reunion Estate was established in the 1940s for cacao research and is managed by the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries. The Estate quite simply produces the highest quality of organic Trinitario beans, and have unfailingly received global recognition time and again from institutions like the Salon du Chocolat in Paris and the Academy of Chocolate in the UK.
Sun Eaters Organics believes in ethical and sustainable production within the cacao industry, and its founder, Gillian Goddard, is a self-proclaimed activist and changemaker. She is also the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Alliance of Rural Communities in Trinidad and Tobago (ARCTT), an NGO that supports and develops financially independent community-owned rural businesses, including the incubation of said businesses by teaching them how to make artisanal chocolates.
Goddard was interviewed by the Caribbean Beat on the chocolate revolution that is positively shaking up Trinidad and Tobago, “Now that the communities are making chocolate, they have an opportunity to be involved in something which requires communication, co-operation, and attention to detail close to home.”
In the country’s capital, Port of Spain, ARCTT started offering a two-hour chocolate tour showcasing indigenous chocolate production where the main highlight is Trinidad and Tobago’s artisan chocolates made from their very own Trinitario beans in February of this year.
ARCTT is planning on offering longer tours in Trinidad and Tobago’s chocolate-making villages and cacao plantations. Goddard told Newsday, “What we’re trying to do is get people to spend money on local chocolate. When you circulate money within your community it makes a big difference.”
Another way that ARCTT works with the community is by working with farmers to prepare 100% organic Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) baskets every other week. CSA is a system connecting producers and consumers closely by getting consumers to subscribe to the harvest of a group of farms. In Trinidad, The Green Market has a CSA program started in 2014, where families support farmers through monthly subscriptions paid in advance. This direct connection enables farmers, growers, and consumers to become more educated in improving their food supply, health, and environment.
The Green Market in Santa Cruz opened in 2012 on 3/4 acres that is part of a five-acre farm owned by Wendell Mottley and Vicki Assevero. They are strong proponents of Ecoliteracy where communities collectively share information and take action to foster sustainable living, and Ecosophy, a philosophy that believes agriculture should become the foundational sector of a successful Trinbagonian economy where healthier food is produced and the food import bill is reduced.
Committed to building a community of eco-conscious consumers, The Green Market organizes a number of activities and events. On Saturdays is The Green Market’s Farmers’ market where one can find fresh produce, cooked food, land-based artisanal food and crafts, and their Edible Talks. On Sundays, they have morning cooking demos where professional and amateur chefs teach people how to create tasty and nutritious meals, making a point that the best food comes from chemical-free, garden-grown fresh produce. In addition, The Green Market continues to work with farmers to eliminate the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and genetically modified seeds.
Again we ask, why do they keep winning? Well Trinidad and Tobago shows us that having islands that enjoy a tropical climate with lush vegetation all year round, with people deeply connected to their environment who are protective of their culinary traditions, and infused with a kaleidoscopic tapestry of mixed influences and cultures; are the ingredients that make up the perfect pot of culinary excellence.