Buoyed by what he heard, Pearson dug into the chemistry of it all, the myriad compounds that comprise cocoa beans – not quite a sextillion, just 800+ & counting. High enough to baffle food science flavorists & thwart their desires to synthesize an artificial chocolate. He wanted to know specifically what’s responsible for Marañón’s unique flavor signature as well as the chemical differences between white & purple seeds. Very fatherly of him… seeking to understand his babies so he can nourish them.
He did what anyone with an internet connection does: he googled it. Search results yielded the USDA (United States Dept of Agriculture). Pearson made a cold-call, a monumental one in his estimation.
Dr. Lyndel Meinhardt answered. Meinhardt heads up the Sustainable Perennial Crops Lab. Both men hail from the Midwest & immediately get on terms. What follows is an abridged transcript of their initial conservation —
Dan Pearson: … I’ve got a 60/40 mix between white ‘n purple beans.
Lyndel Meinhardt: OK. Where are they located?
Dan Pearson: Northern Peru.
Lyndel Meinhardt: We’ve got a USDA station in northern Peru at Tarapoto. You’re in our zone. I’ve been exploring for new original varieties, wild cacáo in the smaller river systems in ‘n around there.
DP: Tarapoto’s kinda nearby distance-wise to us but we’re at 3,500 feet, rough roads, so it takes a long time getting up to where we are.
LM: What’s the altitude?
DP: 3,500 feet
LM Wait a minute, you’re going too damn fast. Cacáo doesn’t grow much over 2,000 feet.
DP: Mine do.
LM: FJ Pound talked about that during his 1938 expedition but we’ve never actually seen it to verify it. Let’s start over. You got what?
Pearson reiterated. Meinhardt remained bewildered. They wound up the call with Pearson asking “will you do some testing” – a highly unusual request seeing how practically EVERYBODY in the industry — growers, brokers, bean-to-bar makers, et. al. — run the other way at the very mention of those 3 little initials D-N-A.
Genetic testing is important work that has benefits for the entire chocolate chain, from solving both the origins & relationships puzzle of the species, to identifying possible heirloom varieties, & sequencing the genome. Ramifications also extend to conservation research, particularly vital with the storehouse of cacáo’s germplasm – the Amazon Rainforest – under siege & threatened with deforestation. A DNA trust fund potentially ensures a richer cacáo future. Yet few if any step forward despite internationally recognized geneticists like Meinhardt offering such tests free-of-charge!
Rather than lift the curtain, most hide behind it. Reluctance stems from the fear of what DNA fingerprinting will reveal. A definitive result might prevent growers & grinders from making spurious marketing claims. A well found if ultimately misguided belief that it’s more profitable to bank on mystery, hearsay, murky legends, misinformation & the like rather than facts. Shamefully, they know better but for the obvious marketing appeal, they continue to pander. So in the boutique chocolate niche more “Criollo” or some other exotic strain is sold than is ever grown! The retail version of dead people voting early & often in elections.
This fits in with the industry’s legacy of stealth, subterfuge, & secrecy. It’s the old ‘deal-gone-wrong’ canard: ‘there’s this guy who knows a guy who knew this guy who knows 2 other guys who knew our guy – trust us, it’s a piece of chocolate’. Joël Glenn Brenner chronicled an infamous bit of it in The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey & Mars. Ergo all the Chocolate M.I.A.s: Mission – Integrity – Accountability.
Unprepared for such a fresh & bold request, Meinhardt replied “let me get back to you on that”.
Soon he did with instructions to send samples to Tarapoto for preliminary testing.
Back in Marañón Canyon they randomly gathered leaves (no flowers or fruits required) from a dozen orchards & followed the protocol (plot & label both the leaves + the trees they came from; dry the leaves; drop in an sealed pouch with silicon packets; & fill out paperwork necessary for exporting agricultural material). They sent in the first batch.
Dr. Meinhardt got back to them & said send some more, this time to their Beltsville, MD headquarters for confirmation.
Sensing something’s up, Dan, Brian & Noe went into executive session… jungle style. They decided to pay a visit to Fortunato’s Farm – the grower whom they briefly met before Brian’s brush with death – & convoyed over to it.
GO TO PART X –> High Upon Fortunato’s Farm