Two years ago I wrote about my disappointing experience eating fresh cacao in Cuba. Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is the tree that chocolate comes from. The fruit is a big pod that forms directly on the trunk and older growth of the tree. It kind of looks like a squash and smells like one too.
Chocolate is made by fermenting, sun drying, and sometimes slow roasting the little beans that form inside the pod. However, a sweet, white, and sticky flesh grows around the beans that can be eaten fresh out of the pod. Eating that fresh flesh was on my list of things to do before I die; however, my first attempt was thwarted by an over-ripe pod that was neither sweet nor sticky and kind of tasted like a giant eraser for BIG mistakes.
When we were planning this trip I knew that we would come into contact with fresh cacao again and that I was not going to miss the opportunity to have a proper do-over. Still, I thought trying cacao in Dominica would mean making a special trip to a cacao plantation, but it turns out that cacao trees grow practically everywhere on the island. The tree grows well in mountain regions where the weather is humid and shaded by taller forest trees. That pretty much describes the entire island of Dominica, save the city where we stayed and a handful of dryer areas on the west coast.
Most flights come into Dominica on the east coast and it’s about an hour and half drive through the interior to get to the capital, Roseau. I must have spotted a million cacao trees along the route, although we did not stop to pick one on that day. I had hoped I could buy one from the market, but while I did purchase several unusual items there I never did see a cacao pod for sale. I think that may be simply because it is so easy to come by. Why buy one at the market when you can pick a pod right off the tree growing in your own yard?
I’ve seen torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) flowers in floral shops and thought they were interesting, but it’s quite another thing to see the waxy flowers in amongst the massive leaves and stalks of a 20 foot plant. As our friend David pointed out, It’s amazing how much plant it takes to support the flowers.
This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post that showed the entire banana (or plantain) flower. Here you can see the tiny bananas (or plantains) forming and the bract curled up above them.
At one time just about everyone in Dominica grew bananas. Stabilized market prices made it possible for farmers to etch out a humble prosperity growing and selling bananas for export to the UK. But Dominica’s small-scale banana farmers can no longer compete with the massive plantation output of Latin America’s big banana business. Between that and a destabilized market, growing bananas does not provide a living wage.
Still, wherever you go in Dominica, you’re bound to run into a banana tree or two. Or several. Possibly a hillside covered in them. And now that I’ve had so much exposure to this primitive plant, I think I have a pretty good idea of how it grows and an even larger sense of awe about just how weird it is.
The big purple dangling thing in the photo is the flower heart. The flowers develop underneath the bracts, which peel back as the flowers form fruit.
In truth, I believe the plant in the photo is actually a type of plantain, not a banana. We made this mistake at the market a few times, as I have never seen such small plantains for sale in Canada. I thought I knew about the breadth and scope of banana types, but being in Dominica showed me just how wide the variety really is.
If you’d like to learn more about the banana industry in the Caribbean, I’d also recommend the documentary, Life and Debt, which has a small but eye-opening segment on what has happened with the EU and how impossible it is for small-scale, fair wage farmers to compete with big agro-business.
One of these days I will sit down and put together a longer post about the giant granadilla (Passiflora quadrangularis), a passionfruit that is as large as a small melon! We were treated to one on our first night in St. Lucia and I have been thinking about it ever since and pondering when i will get a chance to taste one again.
This is a Polaroid I took of one of the flowers the morning it opened on the vine. We had the good fortunate of staying on an organic farm in St. Lucia (that’s another story) and were able to get up close and experience all sorts of wonderful edibles, but the giant granadilla was probably my favourite, and certainly the most exotic.