A Taste for Tonka
Trinidad has three mountain ranges, offshoots of the Andes that race from Venezuela, down the South American continent, from a Trinidad that was rent millennia ago. From a boat far into the sea, the perspective and sheer size of these ranges make them loom large, appearing as three single peaks, when in fact they are razor-backed ridges that segregate the north, central, and southern regions of the island from each other. This mirage led Columbus to name the island La Trinidad, or the Trinity.
The cool valleys in the crevices of these many peaks make ideal cocoa country: it's shady enough to protect Trinidad's prized trinatario cocoa, the world's finest cocoa, from the blistering equatorial sun. Here live the descendants of the cocoa paynols (a pidgin version of the word cocoa espagnoles), laborers who came from Venezuela in the 18th century to pick the prized cacao that today lies mostly foundering in the fields as Trinidad's fortunes now come from its rich oil and gas reserves.
Theirs are bygone ways. These paynols — the cocoa Spanianards — still speak a smattering of old-world Spanish, their troubadour music is an entrenched part of local culture, and bush medicine is practiced here. Cocoa remains king, particularly in the cocoa tea they drink — a mixture of pure cacao beans and local spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaf, and tonka bean.
Tonka bean grows in pods on an ancient hardwood tree valued for building and for smoking meats in the true Trinidadian boucanee (buccaneer) style. The seed is white and pulpy and must be allowed to dry, wizen and darken until it looks like an obscenely huge, hard, black raisin.
It is not so foreign, really. If you've ever bought a vanilla-scented candle or perfume, you know tonka bean. Sometimes it is called "vanillin," a name that cheapens it for it is not a mere copy of vanilla but a self-contained microcosm of heady scent redolent of pear, warm spices, rich soil and, yes, vanilla. Once it was used to flavor tobacco, before the FDA determined that it contains a toxic substance and banned it for food import.
Tonka bean contains coumarin, a blood thinner that, in large quantities, can be deadly. But used traditionally, in micrograins to flavor cocoa tea, or steeped in rum to provide a unique scent and taste to baked goods, it surely cannot harm. In all the years I traveled to the island with my Trinidadian father, I never heard of anyone dying from ingesting the small quantities of tonka used.
Still, now that it is a forbidden fruit, few people use tonka in Trinidad, and those who do certainly don't admit to it. Now Trinidadians use something called "mixed essence," an entirely artificial substance that can even be found in Caribbean grocery stores in the U.S. In the UK and France, however, Trinidad tonka bean is sold to any gourmand willing to pay roughly a dollar for the one-inch seed. Limit two per customer.
As a chef, culture writer, Trinidadian, and person obsessed with foods I can't have, I've gone to extreme lengths to secure this precious pod, traveling into the mountainous cocoa paynol enclaves to secure five or six, then mixing them into a bag of homemade granola replete with Brazil nuts, which are roughly the same size. The granola was a ruse to smuggle the tonka back home to the U.S., and it worked. But when I got them here and carefully fished them out from the mix, my courage failed me. For months, I worked on getting up the nerve to use them, but the warnings of sudden death kept floating through my head, and eventually they became so stale it was a lost cause.
Still, it plagued me that the commercial mixed essence that most West Indians associate with our baked goods was, in fact, a lie. Having eaten goodies made with real tonka, I know mixed essence is just a pitiful copy of the lost elixir that our grandparents used readily.
I realized I could do the purveyors of the culinary fakery that is "mixed essence" one better — by making my own. Using pure vanilla extract, warm tropical spices, and other pure essences, I could alchemize my own approximation of the tonka tisane.
It's been an experiment that has gone on for years.
Just when I think I've gotten it right, I go back to Trinidad and wrangle a taste of something secretly made with "the real thing" and I know my blend is just not there yet. It has become my white whale, my Rachmaninoff piano concerto, my Gordian knot. Perhaps, one day, I'll master it. Or, if I can ever get my hands on some again, I'll get up the nerve to toss them in rum and make the real thing myself.
For now, though, I keep trying, hoping my taste memory serves me well enough to realize when I've finally achieved a close approximation of the fleeting flavor. Below is my version — for now at least.
Faux Tonka Essence (Trinidadian Mixed Essence)
Makes 1 cup
1 cinnamon stick
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons dark rum
½ cup pure vanilla extract
¼ cup pear essence
¼ cup almond extract
2 drops orange blossom water
1. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the cinnamon stick into small pieces about 1/3-inch long. Place the cinnamon in a small, sealable container with the grated nutmeg and the rum. Set aside for at least one week and up to two. Check the mixture every couple of days to ensure the rum is not evaporating. If necessary, add a bit more rum and reseal to reduce air flow.
2. Strain the rum mixture into a sealable, dark-colored glass jar and add the remaining ingredients. Seal and shake gently.
3. Store in a cool, dry place. Use in baked goods in place of vanilla.
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