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Suriname has a long history in cacao. Growing and processing of Theobroma cacao, this so called ‘food of the Gods’ took place from the second half of the 17th century. While the Dutch claim to have been the first to introduce cacao for cultivation, the Brazilian Portuguese linguistic roots of ‘skrati’ - the Sranan word for processed cacao and the hot drink made with it - hint at the role expelled Jews from the Pernambuco region played during the initial stage. Unbeknownst that a unique cacao grows native in the interior, plant material was first imported from the Orinoco delta, then Brazil and finally from Trinidad and Costa Rica.

During slavery cacao was mainly grown as a side crop on coffee plantations, both coffee and cacao growing well under the canopy of the same shadow tree called kofi mama. In these times cacao was solely consumed as a drink. Cacao cultivation only seriously got going as late as the second half of the 19th century, when new inventions in Europe for the first time enabled the production of chocolate bars, leading to a sharp rise in demand of cacao. Around 1895 more than 2 million trees were under cultivation, half of these planted by smallholder farmers. An outbreak of the dreaded witches broom disease, low prices and new competition from West African bulk cacao led to the crops’ steady decline. When Tan Bun Skrati started in 2010 cacao was no longer cultivated on a large scale. The last active plantation, Peperpot, had ceased production 13 years before.

All this time, impervious to the ups and downs of cacao as a cash crop for export, the Surinamese cottage industry of skrati-making remained active. For centuries, it catered the local need for cacao, an impressive 100.000 kilo in 1920. The import of cheap mass-produced cacao powder delivered a near fatal blow to the craft. Goods from overseas were held in higher esteem than those made by local hands and many skrati makers ended their businesses.

The younger generations no longer grew up with mothers and grandmothers making cacao from scratch. It was only ten years ago that the old tradition of cacao-making had nearly completely vanished.
Rags to riches
Suriname has always cultivated varieties that yield a fine flavour cacao. Despite these good varieties, Surinamese cacao beans had a not-so-good reputation. Although the climate is excellent for growing it, the peak of the harvest falls in the rainy season, which made drying difficult, often resulting in produce of inferior quality.

To meet these challenges Tan Bun Skrati from the outset has been working on improving existing post harvesting techniques. Assistance was sought from Trinidad’s Cocoa Research Center to develop gradual indoors drying and Cyprus-born Canadian oenologist/winemaker Elias Phiniotis helped understand and control the fermentation process at deeper levels. Through trial and error and years of perseverance Tan Bun Skrati managed to make Surinamese cacao shine and bring out the richness of the flavors that lay hiding under the bitterness of freshly harvested beans. Subtle notes of fruit, spices, dairy flowers and nuts now all can be tasted in the cacao.

Times had changed. In the meantime a worldwide renewed interest has grown for craft quality chocolate made with cacao which origin can be traced. By tapping into that niche market with premium products, 72%, 80% and 100% chocolate bars and pralines, Tan Bun Skrati has effectively turned the tale of Surinamese cacao into a true rags-to-riches-story: the ugly duckling maturing into a beautiful swan. In the process, Suriname is being rebranded as a desirable tourist destination for the craft chocolate lover.

Now that local Surinamese cacao is receiving more attention, new trees are being planted and the demand for local cacao is growing again. To meet this rise in demand Tan Bun Skrati will soon start producing the old style, more coarsely ground cacao too. And with that, skrati’s story will have come full circle.

"There's more to cacao than chocolate"
Copyrights Lem Ligteringen 2020, E-mail: info@tanbun.org