In this NEW series I’ll be sharing some of the stories (and personal experiences) passed down to us via my mom, dad and village elders about life in Trinidad and Tobago and by extension, the Caribbean. The goal is to help preserve some of this information to hopefully enlighten another generation about our past. I do hope you enjoy “Conversations With Dad” and I welcome you to share your thoughts and similar stories in the comment section below.
Our Father’s Land. Memories Of Caribbean Cocoa Tea first appeared in Zing Magazine, the in flight magazine of LIAT Airlines, where I was a contributor for several years.
It was going to be a long day in the forest retracing our dad’s childhood, to what was once our family’s cocoa and coffee plantation. We heard so many exciting stories from dad about his past, that we hardly slept the night before when he told us that he would take my brother Ted and I on the trip. We were finally old enough for the trek into the wild and we were about to live the best book we’d never read. Better than anything Dickens, Cervantes, Twain or Dumas had ever written.. so intriguing were dad’s stories.
Our great aunt had a stunning breakfast waiting for us as we arrived in at her home in the rural village of Tabaquite. As we dined on coconut bake, with a saltfish stew and waited patiently for the milk-rich hot cocoa to cool so we could warm up before heading out into the still misty morning, dad and his uncle (papi Cril) planned the day.
The gravel road led to a narrow track with tall grasses from hardly being used anymore, where once was a well defined route dad and my great grandparents would drive the donkey laden with cocoa and coffee beans along with other produce from the plantation, to the train station in Tabaquite. After a 3 hr walk deep into the forest of Central Trinidad and several stops for water from the all the natural springs and for dad to name off many of the vegetation and wildlife we encountered during the walk, we had arrived.
The canopy of Immortelle trees opened up to shed a burst of light which seemed almost heavenly over the area where the wooden structure with the thatched roof once stood, where dad and his dog (only friend) spent a greater part of his childhood. As we explored the area the air was fragrant with the scent of coffee and citrus flowers and the birds above serenaded us with a sort of welcome home melody.
We stood there my brother and I and watch as dad paused for a moment and we could see both the joy and pain in his eyes. A typical STRONG Caribbean man who never shows his true emotions. The pain from seeing the legacy which were supposed to be passed on to us, in ruins. The cocoa and coffee trees were scrawny and malnourished from lack of care and looking back I could tell they could not be salvaged. The breadfruit trees which once bore fruits as big as watermelons (so we’re told), were just rotted stumps in the ground. The orange and other citrus were covered in weeds and other parasitic plants and there were no sign of the majestic banana and plantains we grew up being told about. But as he glanced at where the water was cascading down the waterfall where he would take his daily showers and then over to us, there was joy. We would never know this piece of land in it’s glory, but at that moment he was able to share a past with us, a past which to this day I dream about reviving before my dad is no longer with us.
When dad was in his early teens the cocoa and coffee industry saw a decline due partly to the stoppage of the train service through Tabaquite so farmers had no way of taking their crops to market and for export. My grandmother ended up selling the property and years of history and tradition escaped us.
Today we’re seeing a revival of growing cocoa in the Caribbean and it brings joy to my heart. I urge you to think about my dad’s story and support the local cocoa farmers and artisans who produce world renowned cocoa and chocolates. Before you reach for that prepackaged cocoa powder with your breakfast or that foreign packaged chocolate in the fancy boxes when you need your chocolate fix, try some of the products coming out of Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, Grenada and St Lucia. We have a huge tradition of producing some of the best cocoa and coffee in the world and it would be a shame to see the industry not be recognized locally.
After a full day of hiking though many abandoned plantations (known as Estates in the Caribbean) we took the route which would take us through Knollys tunnel, a lasting memory of a once booming Agri industry. Tanty Placine had a wonderful dinner waiting for us but Ted and I were exhausted and didn’t have the energy for such a heavy meal, but we didn’t say no to another cup of that rich and creamy cup of cocoa tea we started the day with.
Hot Cocoa Tea (Recipe)
1/2 cup grated Cocoa, (grated from a cocoa stick)
2 cups water
2 cups evaporated milk (or reg milk)
1/3 Cup Condensed milk (sweetened)
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 Bay Leaf
1 stick Cinnamon
Pinch Nutmeg (freshly grated)
- Bring the water along with the cinnamon stick and bay leaf to a boil and allow to simmer for about 3 minutes.
- Add the grated cocoa powder to the pot and let that continue on a simmer for 4-5 minutes.
- Now add the evaporated milk and bring to the simmer.
- Turn off the heat, strain.
- Finish off by grating in the nutmeg, add the vanilla and sweeten with the condensed milk and give it a good whisk.
Did you know? Any hot drink consumed in the mornings in the Caribbean is considered a tea?
A visit to Tabaquite is well worth the drive as it’s home to Knollys tunnel,which was opened on August 20th 1898 and named after the Acting Governor Courtney Knollys. The tunnel has gone through some preservation work and the surrounding park-like area is a great spot for a picnic. I believe it’s the longest train tunnel in the Caribbean.