The Dominican Republic is host to some of the finest quality cocoa in the world. It is mostly all trinitario, a variety or hybrid that originated in Trinidad. It is speculated that it is created from Venezuelan “Criollo” and “Forestero,” which originated in the upper Amazon basin. These two came together after what they called a “blast” (probably a giant storm, but it could have been disease) hit Trinidad in 1727 and killed off most of the original cocoa in Trinidad (Venezuelan criollo). The new hybrid was more disease hardy and also had some beautiful fruit flavor notes as well as some deeper chocolate flavor notes.
Today, Trinitario has spread throughout the Caribbean and has found a strong home in the Dominican Republic, where in many areas growing Trinitario cocoa has gone from a subsistence crop to a true art form.
The first time I visited the Dominican Republic on one of my cocoa-hunting expeditions, I had an amazing time. My hosts took me to visit a huge number of farms and operations around the island. After our first long, hard, grueling day, we started heading back to the Dominican Republic’s capital city, Santo Domingo.
About half way back to Santo Domingo, I was asked, “What would you like to have for dinner?”
For me, the answer was clearly obvious. I replied, “Let’s go eat Dominican!”
Big long pause …
My Hosts: “Are you sure?”
Me: “Yeah, Dominican sounds excellent!”
Another Big long pause …
My Hosts: “Umm…. What do you think Dominican food is?”
Me: “Oh, I don’t know. I’d guess it is probably fried plantains, rice with some chicken on it, and perhaps some sort of gravy on top.”
My Hosts: “Yeah, that’s Dominican food, all right.”
Another big long pause …
My Hosts: “Are you sure?”
A Real Puzzled Me: “Yeah! Sounds great!”
Another big long pause… This time from me.
A Real Suspicious Me: “Why? What does everyone else eat?”
No big long pause this time. In fact, a real quick reply.
My Hosts: “Oh, everyone goes out to eat Italian! But we can take you to go eat Dominican if you like.”
So we went to a beautiful restaurant that was right on the ocean. It had outdoor seating, and we ate an incredible Dominican smorgasbord of food. There was a Dominican sampler, and that is exactly what we ordered. The next thing we knew our table was filled with an incredible amount of delicious meats, rice, vegetables and … soup.
I fell in love. With soup.
If there is a national soup of the Dominican Republic, it would have to be this very soup. In fact, it probably is. It is called sancocho. Sancocho is found throughout Puerto Rico, Columbia, and the Dominican Republic. Each country has its own unique spin on this traditional stew. It is rich and hardy and full of meat, starches (yams, and casava), and spices. Oh… especially those spices. Especially oregano and cumin. Lots and lots of oregano and cumin. The flavor is amazing—deep, rich, and very hardy in a way that you know it will stick with you for the rest of the day. Oh, all that oregano? It makes the soup look a bit on an army green side.
The entire meal was amazing. When I think of some of the finest meals have had in my life, this would have to be right up there. The food was all very simple—no Michelin Star chef to prepare it. It was simple comfort food prepared very, very well by someone who truly cared about what they were creating. When I went back to my hotel that evening, I had a very happy tummy. I slept well too.
Every time I think back on that trip, I laugh. I laugh that the world’s greatest chocolate makers from Europe—many of whom now are friends and colleagues—fly to the Dominican Republic to eat … Italian. Every time I travel to a country, I try to eat the local food as much as I can. I love trying new and exciting flavors and dishes. It’s amazing how often I find foods that are simply incredible. Occasionally, I’ll find foods that are very disagreeable, sometimes even wildly so. This is all part of the adventure that is … chocolate.
The next evening? What did we eat? Let’s just say: “Who can pass up really good Italian?” (But I still dream of my love, Sancocho.)