That’s just a taste of the official science. The informal reality is ever more convoluted.
Other than Criollo, cacáo is generally promiscuous, with so much cross-pollination, hybridization, mutation, & recombination that it’s rare & increasingly difficult to find any pure forms. To complicate matters further, all-too-frequent mislabeling of strains at the research level, as well as botanical names getting tossed in the mix with trade/brand names, creates a confused landscape.
As a rule the industry & particularly the artisanal boutique bean-to-bar end of it, takes advantage of the confusion, often misrepresenting — sometimes intentionally – the contents of their product with cocoa myth information. Or they peddle in largely vague notions. Single origins that can be as big as the State of Texas & larger. Meaningless mob terms like ‘Trinitario’ & ‘Arriba’. Oft-fallacious catch phrases such as ‘organic’, ‘fair-trade’, ‘sustainable’, ‘raw’ (even better when all linked together!). All part & parcel of an enormously long market chain from producer-to-consumer that inspires chicanery.
With few rare exceptions, much of the “cocoa belt” today where Theobroma grows contains the same relative mix of cacáo types. A lot of hybrid mutts often indistinguishable from one another. Chocolate makers as well as brokers would have consumers think otherwise for obvious marketing reasons: misperceptions benefit them. An unsuspecting public accepts at face-value ‘varietal’ claims undermined by genetic intel & the enshrinement of ‘single origins’ when the reality is frequently different.
Among the exceptions to this rule — Gianluca Franzoni aka Mack Domori, the Magister Ludi of chocolate (Master of the Game). Cacáo Shaman / Scientist… moody, intense, challenging, brilliant, EdVenturous; a leading light who set a standard dissecting varietals with power & finesse, developing an acuity for splitting hairs, or seeds as it were, in distinguishing between Fine & Extra-Fine Cacáo thru the investigation of their intrinsic genetic values. Described in his Domori Codice, each varietal carries different & exclusive sensory / flavor traits. In fact, Domori takes a stand against the rising chorus shouting out that all seeds are the same; that the only difference spelling quality lays in post-harvest production; & distinctions should result from terroir. He’s resolute that certain cacáo seeds are simply greater than others, echoed in the C-spot’s™ 3rd Law of Chocodynamics. Truly showing the way back into the origins that gave proof to his motto Cacáo Cult, Franzoni voyaged farther than just about anyone thru the jungle maze (the ‘jungle’ metaphorically located at Hacienda San José in Venezuela where he & the Franceschi family proprietors enjoyed a rich collaboration) to push the boundaries that even natives envy & respect (calling him ‘Hidalgo’).
Together their main mission has been the rescue & recovery of heirloom cultivars such as Porcelana (an exceedingly delicate type of Criollo whose name self-describes its surface & whose seeds rank among the rarest & most expensive of all in the world); or an Ocumare clonal series of purer germplasm crafted into the stellar bar Domori christened Puertomar; & their controversial Chuao seedlings transplanted from the village of that name & an estate there considered the Romanee-Conti of chocolate, an “important cacáo” republic with huge symbolic, cultural, & ‘social capital’, to borrow French thinker Pierre Bourdieu’s concept.
Twice a year the harvest is sun-dried & on designated days – weather-permitting – on the village of Chuao’s church parvis called the Plaza de Secado
The backstory starts some time ago. While every other barsmith today scrambles around the Chuao Valley in a media-worthy frenzy, Domori & the Franceschis, ever so sly & prescient, quietly transported the best of the best from there in 1994 to sculpt a masterwork in 2010. You see, far from any red carpet of pure Criollo, the village of Chuao, west of Caracas on Venezuela’s northern coast, hosts a mix of differing cacáo types – about 3 dozen in total. The Franceschis & Domori transplanted the pick of the crop, some obviously rare varietal, from Chuao to Hacienda San José on the Paria peninsula way to the east.
They do as well as just about anyone (re: not great but better than the rest of the field) in isolating the differing varietals on their property which make for heirloom cacáo that Chuao Village has possibly lost thru cross breeding. That sets it apart from other Chuao bars on the market, distinct & singular in a kind of ‘Chuao exceptionalism’.
Domori operates within a highly organized framework, in a region with a longstanding tradition, a noble history really, of economic success. Despite political instability affecting its groves, Venezuela continues to be sold as the world capital of premium cacáo today, revered as the Mercedes of chocolate, hence the abbreviated tag ‘Venzy’.
A few others pursuing hi-flavor cacáo are more footloose on an open range.
Volker Lehmann, for instance, a river-runner up & down the Rio Bení in Bolivia, captains Rainforest Exquisite Products (REP). An apt acronym, he reps both the forest people & forest produce in realizing a dramatic increase in the revenue captured for them by wild-harvesting a ‘savage’ fruit. That the money they earn goes to beer & babes is, well, their business.
Liberated from Colonial Spain by Simón Bolívar – one of the few men in history so honored to have a whole country named after him – Bolivia is rife with poverty yet rich in natural resources, whence the motto “a donkey sitting on a gold mine”. The countryside faces challenges with its many natural endowments where the news is checkered. Once a vast carpet of vegetation & virgin forest, satellite images show dramatic deforestation in the Amazon Basin. Loggers have cut deep gashes into the forest, while ranchers bulldozed large blocks for their herds. Fanning out from these cleared areas are settlements built in radial arrangements of fields & farms.
The jagged quilt of Bolivian deforestation… about 1.5 million acres above Tierras Bajas del Este in Santa Cruz Department; residual vegetation appears as bright red (satellite image by NASA)
Along the Rio Bení itself rumors circulate of legendary forests full of ‘wild’ cacáo. Reasonable, for across the border in Peru, in the ancestral land of the Chuncho peoples (near present-day Cusco), stood ancient cacáo groves known to flourish long before the first contact with Pizzaro & the conquistadores. These could’ve extended toward Bajo (“Lower”) Bení & could be the progenitor of the ‘wild’ Rio Beni cacáo, which Fr. Francis Xavier Eder wrote about back in the mid 1700s that was considered the best among all cacáo. Alto (“Upper”) Bení comprises cacáo transplanted from Bajo Bení, plus farmers’ selections imported from Ecuador & Trinidad.
That they hail from tall trees bearing baby-sized pods with tiny seeds grown on islands in the middle of a seemingly endless savannah is a good sign. Multi-trunked trees also indicate some antiquity. Those come about when the mother tree dies & young shoots bloom at differing successive years over the course of the tree’s life & clump together.
Bení cacáo was thought to be planted by Jesuits, sourced from the Brazilian states of Rhondônia & Mato Grosso. The Jesuits eventually were expelled from the area & trees now found there that appear virgin forest would have been feral survivors of abandoned territory escaping domestication to return to the wild.
Conservation geneticist Dr. Dapeng Zhang of the USDA in Beltsville, MD conducted genetic analysis of Bolivian cacáo in 2010 & agai in 2012. The lower one goes on the Rio Bení, the more indigenous & wild the cacáo.
Wherever the precise location along the river, it presents a relatively rare find in the cacáo world today: a sizable area featuring a contiguous crop of closely related if not identical members now referred to by its phyto-geography: Beniano.
Cacáo from Lehmann’s REP is hand-gathered by several hundred harvesters who roam & tread lightly over the vast forest floor. They prune trees on chocolatales [literally ‘place where cacáo grows’], or elevated “cacáo islands”, set amidst the wetlands of Bajo or lower Beni. It has caused a sensation among the chocoscenti with the release of one of the more fabled bars on the planet – Felchlin’s Cru Sauvage. Beyond estate-domain, its primordial character possesses a jungle paradox: wild & refined, preserving thereby the fragile balance between man-made & natural.
Even more off-the-grid are the cluster of freelancers roaming the cocoa zones on their own in search of good taste / fine flavor.
J. Sandy Hepler is one such cacáo-spotter surveying outside the purview of science circles in Nicaragua. The earliest surviving accounts & much of what’s known about cacáo’s pre-Columbian production in the Americas comes from here, written about by naturalist Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo in Historia General y Natural de las Indias spanning1527 to 1529. Shortly thereafter Italian Girolamo Benzoni wrote a chocolate travelogue from Nicaragua. Both disdained chocolate, calling it fit for pigs.
Pre-Hispanic cacáo production centered around the town of Tecoatega in the vicinity of modern Chinandega, including some rumored to be the ancient cacao real (‘royal cacao’, perhaps descended from Soconusco Mexico or Mayan Guatemala). By the time of the contact with the Spanish, cacáo was ubiquitous, stretching NW from the wealthy plantations in León to Jaén in the SE, & along the slopes of Mombacho Volcano near Granada in-between.
René Millon, whose extensive work includes When Money Grew on Trees – the highly trenchant account of cacáo that pre-dates the Coe’s more popular True History of Chocolate – reports that the ancient trees were related to Criollo. He echoed Hart describing in 1893 that the best was ‘Creole’ & a variant called ‘Alligator’ (or ‘Lagarto’ in Preuss’ words circa 1901) – in reference to its warty skin. Of rather uniform variety nonetheless because the Criollo was expressed internally by white beans twice the average size of other varieties, with only 20-30 filling a pod. All these scouts confirm Oviedo who way back when also observed fruits no more than a hand’s breadth in length & the diameter of a wrist – of the largest pod! In other words, large seeds / small pods.
Additionally, Preuss’ notes lead to speculation that the Criollo which Spanish settlers moved from Central America down to Venezuela during the 17th century probably originated from here. And analysis conducted on accessions housed in gene banks indicate that even today a goodly sum of Nicaraguan cacáo belongs to the Criollo group.
On these trails the peripatetic J. Sandy Hepler treks thru the backwoods of Nicaragua hunting old cacáo, whether on flat land or up into the back mountains. A field-type kind of guy driven by practical curiosity – to discover supreme tasting cacáo – he lets the ‘chocolate angels’ guide his nose & eyes along the trails. Whenever he makes an accidental find, he likes to camp out close-by & experiment with custom fermentation – very old school. Sandy reports that his field-study reflects much of what the scientists know & some surprises too.
4 main types can be encountered –
- White Cacáo – a lot of white-seeded cacáo simply refers to a recessive pigmentation gene. But ‘white seeds’ & ‘Nicaragua’ in the same sentence usually means Criollo… the real old-time variety
- Indio-Rojo – smaller-sized pink seeds, smaller because of deterioration due to aging & neglect that’s typical of Criollo
- Indio-Amarillo – yellow-pods with purple seeds; clearly heterogeneous & definitely flavorful too
- Acriollizado – a local term describing the new hybrid-challenger
Ominously, locals perform lots of field grafting onto 50-60 year old trees, never bothering to separate out by type, too poor to care or bother. The same story everywhere: only way to save older varietals is to pay a premium for them.
A loose thread weaves the tales together.
What their combined mosaic shows is that Communism was oddly good for chocolate. Not an ironclad fact but a wildly exaggerated one in support of a greater truth since reality is seldom neat & tight.
At precisely the time when Big Candy & international agencies were littering the landscape with clones & hybrids, cacáo groves under communist regimes fell into neglect & disrepair. Wherever its social experiment applied its grip — in places like the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas, Fidel’s Cuba or, more recently but less germane to the point, in Morales’ Bolivia — heritage cacáo can still be found.
In a bizarre twist, these less sexy, underserved origins could be the hot spots of tomorrow’s cacáo precisely because they resisted (for the most part) modernization & the onslaught of hybridization.
In fact, considering how the Candy Giants have trampled & mangled cacáo crops & its gene stock, they should be fired by Trump in an episode of The Apprentice & replaced by that other totalitarian sect – the ayatollahs & mullahs of the IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran). Facetious for sure but the right conception to reverse cocoa’s industrial decline. Besides, imagine the possibilities. A maneuver that puts America’s adversary right under its nose allows for easier monitoring of their nuclear development, brightens prospects for Mideast peace & preserves cacáo groves like it’s… the year 1491. Mmmmm.
GO TO PART III –> Jungle M&Ms