Haiti is a bit of a mystery. It’s a country we’ve likely all heard of, but know very little about. And when we do hear of it, it’s very rarely in a positive light. We think of poverty, catastrophe, and all sorts of third world problems, but we probably don’t think about chocolate. This is all changing, as this small island country in the Caribbean is in the works to make a name for itself in the premier chocolate industry, bean by bean. You may not have heard much about Haiti yet, but when it comes to pristine chocolate, brace yourself. There’s far more to this country to be discovered.
The small island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean is shared between two even smaller countries that, while having much of the same history and geography in common, are worlds apart. Haiti is one of these countries, occupying the western side of the island, while the Dominican Republic occupies the east. Haiti is hot, humid, far smaller than the country of Lithuania, and has an interesting colonial and economic history, all of which influence its current place in the chocolate industry.
However, before you are ever likely to hear Haiti mentioned in connoisseur circles, you’re first likely to hear it referenced when talking about the more tragic natural disasters of the 21st century. In 2010, Haiti bore the brunt of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people, and did astronomical damage to an economy that now averages around just $800 gross national income per capita.
While it was already involved in the craft chocolate trade prior to the earthquake, the catastrophe did a number on the country’s already struggling ability to produce its cacao. Still, optimism for the country’s future grows as it seeks to revitalize is cacao trade; but, before we begin to look too much to the future, Haitian chocolate is best understood, first, in terms of its past.
Haiti, a Brief History
Although Haiti is geographically located fairly close to South America, the birthplace of modern chocolate history, it wasn’t until its run in with colonialism that chocolate actually came to the island. Hernan Cortez discovered cacao while encountering the Aztecs in 1519, and as the plant began to peek European interests, it made its way to the Spanish colonies on Hispaniola within the 16th century.
It was on the island of Hispaniola that cacao first began to be commercially cultivated, becoming particularly successful in the Dominican Republic in the 17th century, which had fallen under French control. Haiti soon followed suit, and its own cocoa trade became established; however, it failed to reach the same levels of success the plant saw in the Dominican Republic, and even today Haiti’s cocoa trade is still far less developed than its French inspired neighbors.
A Hidden Quality
Haiti’s lack of impact on the overall specialty chocolate industry is not for want of quality. If anything, Haiti is one of the hidden gems of the chocolate world. The country’s lack of infrastructure, development, and practice are some of the few things holding it back from a huge leap in the industry. Once these elements do align, it’s only a matter of time before the jig is up on the secret quality of Haitian cocoa.
In terms of variety, Haiti features all three of the “grand varieties” of cacao in one place: Trinitario, Criollo, and Forastero, allowing it to be a remarkable chocolate producer in terms of versatility. Each of these three varieties brings with it specific characteristics that further influence the taste of Haitian chocolate.
First among the grand varieties in Haiti, we have Criollo. Criollo is one of the most prized cacao sources that appears in only the finest chocolates. This is in part because, even though it is cacao through and through, it offers a more delicate and complex taste somewhat removed from the traditional chocolate taste people have come to expect in cacao.
Forestaro, on the other hand, is the more common type of cacao, and is also found in plenty on Haiti. It is reputable for being both a resilient and hardy crop bringing with it a full bodied chocolate flavor with a short lived bitterness.
Lastly, Haiti also produces the Trinitario variety of chocolate. Trinitario is a special “best of both worlds” type of cacao that came about via the cross pollination of Forestero and Criollo varieties. This means that Trinitario cacao features much of the same durability and boldness of the Forestero variety, yet has some of the delicate and unique undertones of Criollo that allow it to exist as an element in superior chocolates as well.
Not only can you find all three of these varieties in Haiti, but Haitian producers have gone a step farther in furthering the hybrid variety of Trinitario by continuing to unite and cross pollinate it with Criollo. The result is a cacao that is noted for its fruity profile as well as being more sweet than bitter, even in its natural form.
So what does all this glitz and glam in terms of cacao mean for Haiti today? Well, in all honesty Haiti is struggling as a chocolate producer despite its high quality. Even though it falls within the perfect climate specifications to be a long term producer of quality cacao that is far more reliable than its West African counterparts, the lack of infrastructure, quality training, and stability means, as a country, Haiti consistently under produces cacao.
Currently it makes up just .1% of global chocolate production; however, it is a .1% that is being recognized globally. In particular, French enterprises such as Ethiquable and Paris Salon du Chocolate have taken note of the Haitian variety, and as a result it is often being swept up faster than Haitian producers can keep up with.
As the need and interest in specialty chocolate continues to rise in developed nations, future optimism is growing for developing nations like Haiti. Currently, the USAID is funding an $88 million dollar project to more than double the cacao yields of Haiti from 4.5 thousand tons to 10 thousand tons per year by 2024.
This project, along with initiatives to further educate producers and stabilize the infrastructure of Haiti could very well propel the country from its post-earthquake fallings, and, very soon, much more of the world will be able to experience the pristine variety that is Haitian chocolate.
Until Haitian chocolate takes the world by storm, it continues to be a hidden gem of slow discovery. Should you come across varieties from the small country of Haiti, it barely warrants a second thought as to whether or not you should give it a try. Be it based in Forastero, Criollo, Trinitario, or some hybrid in between, you’re in for something special straight from a small, tough country in the middle of the Caribbean.
By David Gilbert
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