Marañón Canyon Cacao signed a Material Transfer Agreement with the USDA, then sent random leaf samples to its Beltsville, Maryland Laboratory for genetic testing. A couple months later Lyndel Meinhardt called Pearson with the results.
“Dan, are you sitting down?” At that point Pearson knew they had found something special.
Dr. Dapeng Zhang, the self-effacing lead geneticist on this case, specializes in conservation strategies for wild heirloom cacáo. He knows the protocol thoroughly & conducted the analysis. What he analyzed in this Marañon Canyon Cacáo staggered him & his team headed by Dr. Lyndel Meinhardt.
“What you got here is thought to be extinct.” Lyndel’s voice now rising to a Castrati-pitch & his breathe quickening, evidently from excitement. Ordinarily he’s the model of mild-mannered cool-under-fire. He has practically seen it all during his tours of duty & forays thru the chocolate universe. His wife is an eminent agronomist from Brazil. Their only child, a young daughter, sees so much of this stuff that chocolate bores her (imagine that). By dint of experience only something truly special would get him juiced.
By ‘Nacional’ he means the classic variety once known as ‘Guayaquil’, then rechristened ‘El Nacional’ & finally, ‘Arriba Nacional’. For centuries, Ecuador was thought to be the exclusive home for this special quality cacáo that ‘Arriba’ has become erroneously synonymous with ‘Nacional’. In Spanish, Arriba means ‘above’, referring here to cacáo grown in the region ‘above’, or north of the Spanish shipbuilding port of Guayaquil in the Guayas Basin of Ecuador. In the distant past the region grew traditional ‘Nacional’ cacáo.
Ceramic pottery remains & early European accounts in the Americas trace it back to at least the early 1600’s in Ecuador (then part of a huge swatch of South America called New Grenada). Brought to the world’s attention later by a mythical Swiss traveler who, the legend goes, when he detected a unique aroma, asked about its origin. It’s “de rio arriba” or “from upriver”, he was told.
The declining fortunes of the fabled cacáo orchards in Mesoamerica during the 17th & 18th centuries enabled Nacional’s ascent as a fine-flavor alternative – albeit secondary in the eyes & on the taste buds of critics & aficionados – esteemed nonetheless for its signature flavors of high-fruit tones & rare floral perfumes. Naturally sweet (therefore negligible bitterness) with low fat yet heavy body (paradoxically light in the upper palate) & chocolate tannins gilded in florid jasmine, geranium, orange blossom… a unique bouquet combining herbal-forest green / fresh meadow effects delivering a characteristic stringent finish. Much of this owes to its rather large & round seeds being surrounded by a potent citric pulp that calls for a shorter fermentation cycle, as little as 1 to 2 days (compared to 4-7 for most strains), which optimize the inherent floral aroma.
With flavor like that, its very name virtually became proprietary. So ‘Nacional’ has come to stand for Ecuador’s traditional native cacáo (its ‘national brand’, so to speak) stemming from the introduction of foreign varieties starting around 1890 & accelerated in 1918-1920 to counter the dreaded Witches Broom (Moniliophthora perniciosa) & Moniliasis diseases. The name was adopted to distinguish it from the newcomers that largely supplanted it, converting one of the more homogenous cacáo populations then in existence into a kind of genetic móle.
Partly on the strength of its Nacional brand, Ecuador vaulted to the world’s leading producer by the 20th century (just prior to the scourge), after which time production fell. It was among the most sought-after cocoas in the world. It commanded a handsome price on the global market… especially after it mostly vanished. Nowadays with modern marketing & branding, ‘Arriba Nacional’ is in reality an exotic trade name, & neither designates a genotype nor even a well-defined geographic area anymore.
The rapid spread of Witches Broom resulted in an introgression of disease-resistant varieties brought in to cross-pollinate & “save” it. By the truckloads they arrived, uncontrolled, from places like Trinidad or the more recently engineered clone from the lab – the ever-ubiquitious CCN-51 — to revive the industry but at the expense of diluting the native Nacional cacáo, along with its renown & quality. Only a fraction of Nacional remains intact, concentrated mostly in the Pacific Littoral around Manabì & farther south in Balao – well outside the so-called Arriba zone.
The changed landscape has produced inferior hybrids with different aromas & flavors. Arriba Nacional has never been the same ever since.
What was once the grandest of Fruits & Flowers in chocolate flavor profiles – that bold chocolate gilded in jasmine – is now highly variable, experiencing the creep of cereal grains, coffee, cotton, & bluestone; spices (especially the ever-more-common cinnamon/ishpingo); pecan / peanut overtones (possibly attributed to Theobroma bicolor, cacáo’s relative, occasionally entering the mix). Shoddy post-harvest processing aggravates it more: under-fermentation (resultant slaty beans) & insufficient drying / inadequate storage (causing molds, toxicity).
Sadly, most of the ‘resistant strains’ brought in to combat the diseases were failures too, causing farmers to either switch to other crops like bananas, or abandon their orchards altogether.
Attempts to transplant Nacional elsewhere have met limited success. Just as Criollo flourished in the wild but fares poorly under domestication, Nacional trees grown outside of Ecuador rarely generate the floral finesse found on its home turf (the lone exception: possibly Hawai’i). Theories abound as to why so, ranging from Ecuador’s singular weather patterns, to the warm offshore currents, & even El Niño – which, taken together, argue for terra being the prime factor trumping genetics, a conclusion at odds with studies comparing genes vs. environment… a chocolate version of ‘nature vs. nurture’.
Nacional’s experience outside its American homeland follows a pattern that as cacáo circumnavigated the globe starting in earnest during the 17th century, & its derivative chocolate grew into a worldwide phenomenon, it paradoxically lost much of its diversity.
Those now rare, rather lonesome Nacional trees scattered in pockets throughout Ecuador are kept up mostly for sentimental value, an emotional attachment to the grandpa who planted them. Growers see little point cultivating a tree that experiences up to 70% crop loss at the hands of disease.
Only a couple Nacional strongholds still take a stand against further encroachment. Two in particular are a rare breed. The twin properties, Las Brisas & La Gloria, both debilitated farms, situated on the west side of the Andes Mountains coastal plains.
They form the baseline markers for the pure Nacional genotype against which all others are compared. This according to the Int’l Database compiled from 12 major Germplasm Repositories throughout the Americas. DNA information in the database can be shared & rationalized between labs around the world & data sets merged for joint analysis.
To date there are ~5,500 DNA-verified cacáo accessions in the Int’l Database, easily the most accurate database of its kind ever assembled.
Nacional serves a point of pride & place for Ecuador in that it has been defined by its a) genetic profile; b) location (coastal plains of Ecuador whose soil type & environment key the formation of Nacional’s trademark flavor); & c) shorter fermentation cycle.
But knowing of its disappearance & economic impact that that would have if it were publicized, the country grew sensitive & secretive to guard its ‘Nacional’ treasure, especially in the wake of investigations. It commissioned discreet studies by research scientists Dr. Rey Loor & Dr. Freddy Amores. They examined samples taken from 11,000 trees provided by the country’s INIAP (Institute Nacional Autónomo de Investigaciones Agropecuarias). Only 6 fit the description of true Nacional (the 2 from Las Brisas & La Gloria, plus 4 others). Worse, Loor & Amores concluded that the rest of the 11,000 trees in the collection, which have been used by cacáo breeders for decades because these were thought to be pure “Arriba Nacional”, all are hybrids. And the 6 with Nacional DNA were not being utilized; none were under cultivation. The hybrids & clones were smothering it.
Contrast that with every leaf sample — from randomly selected groves at different locations & altitudes in the Marañón Canyon, some purple seeds, some 100% white seeds – all of them tested positive for genuine Nacional.
A small canyon trumps a whole country.
In one fell swoop the map of cacáo had been redrawn.
Proof that the distribution of cacáo, & biology generally, follows natural geography & only accidentally, if at all, respects political borders, which, from a botanical perspective, are artificial boundaries.
With the recent rescue & recovery of expeditions in the Marañon Canyon Peru, Nacional is now confirmed to be growing in a place heretofore never suspected of harboring it. Marañón may also be among the last shelters of it too, for Ecuador’s own research scared up but a paltry handful.
More incredible still, those white seeds at 4,100 feet in altitude present a countervailing phenomenon all their own.
For starters, their very color – the first such verification of an all-White Nacional.
Dr. Lyndel Meinhardt: “The international cacao database has 5,500 entries, none are pure Nacional with white beans. 100% pure White Nacional beans is an unprecedented discovery.”
Secondly, from the outset of its primitive beginnings, all cacáo of every type may have borne white seeds in view that its cousin species within the Theobroma genus do today (Grandiflorum, Bicolor, for example). The Genetic Improvement of Cacao edited by L.A.S. Dias speculates that over time an evolution toward seeds of purple color conferred adaptive advantage due to protective properties of the acquired anthocyanin pigment gene responsible for darker-colored seeds. Anthocyanins tend to be bitter so predators such as monkeys would spit them out & thereby propagate cacáo.
That’s the overview of the broad concept.
In the specific circumstance governing Marañón’s 100% all-white seeds, they’re the long-standing outcome of mutations created by inbreeding in remote isolation from the rest of the population. Within a confined geographic zone, Marañón Canyon for instance, whites constitute genetic drift on the border or fringe of the gene pool, similar to albinos among humans. They literally stand at the top of the evolutionary chain in Marañón, the most advanced, & centuries in the making.
“We’re excited about this confirmation,” says Dr. Zhang, “It means that these cacao trees were indigenous to Peru. They are not exotic introductions from somewhere else.”
His DNA analysis further confirms what C.J. van Hall in 1932 & F.J. Pound in 1945 both suspected, namely, that Nacional is a single uniform subspecies of defined genetic range, unique from other Amazon types & unrelated to Criollo.
One mystery remains: the precise location of Nacional’s origins.
Up thru 2010 Nacional has never been ascertained in the wild in Ecuador; only domesticated.
Marañón can stake its claim that it might be the source of all Nacional.
The history of the diseases Witches Broom & Moliniasis suggests that Nacional has been in Peru longer than in Ecuador. Both pests are in the Canyon but where they have devastating consequences in Ecuador, Marañón’s microclimate shrugs them off. Cacáo here does more than survive, it thrives. The hypothesis: this is its native source; indigenous, wild & at home.
If so, how did it get to Ecuador or, if no, vice-versa… how did it get to Peru? Separated by the imposing Andes Mountains but linked by the Santiago River, which flows thru them & along whose banks cacáo flourishes, it could’ve been planted there by wildlife.
Also, the Qhapaq Ñan, more famously known as the Inca Trail, connected & unified an empire, over which soldiers / chasqui (porters) / caravans moved the important business of the day, replete with tambos (service stations where travelers could stop for food & lodging & bathroom breaks). It overlaps with the Peru<–>Ecuador corridor. The trail went as far north as the provincial Inca capital Quito (in present day Ecuador). The famed Camino Real in fact had an exit to a side road going to Cajamarca near Marañon Canyon.
Not only does this find of Nacional in Peru fill a crucial genetic gap, & its remote isolation point to cacáo that’s indigenous to the area (a fact that few other cacáo-growing regions can claim; most cacáo around the world has been planted for purposes of commercial cultivation), it moreover prospers within striking distance to the very heart or center of origin for the entire Theobroma cacao species. Among the chocoscenti that’s the equivalent of the Source of the Nile, the Holy Grail, & the Big Bang all rolled up together.
Pretty dizzying. White Nacional, in Peru, at up to 4,600 feet, seemingly in defiance of the laws of botany. It begs the question if science ever gets any of this stuff right, let alone conclusive. And what’s its epistemological foundation anyways? Like who said he was Adam & she Eve? Supposedly the same as who named the cat a cat & black black. On the bemusing pyramid of ‘who gives a shit’, we’re at the peak. Boiled down to its most reductio ad absurdum, it could just be made up, kinda like ‘hey, it’s about flavor, baby’. A new premise: flavor dictates purity?
Pearson hung up the phone, put on his marketing cap & took a long walk… a country mile+… for this boy from Indiana now living in the relaxed state of California known for a marijuana minute…
It was August 7, 2009 – a day that for Marañón Canyon will live on as an anniversary.
More importantly, Pearson reflected on the wonder of it all & its historical significance. Does it compare to Francisco Hernández chronicling the true Mayan Criollo in 1527? Or FJ Pound recovering Scavina 6 on his trek in 1938?
No. But it ranks as a marker-event. Whether once-in-a-lifetime, a generation, a decade, a year or, given the exploding rate of change, merely a season, time will tell.
In an era when everything is thought to be known & understood, Marañón Canyon presents to a dumbfounding trove.
But the damn responsibility. A little bit of discovery can be dangerous. It began as a trip to the market for some bananas; turned into a social enterprise to help struggling villagers; & now a rescue & recovery mission for one of mankind’s most celebrated enchantments & planetary treasures.
When would he ever be able to get back to his poker & whiskey nights? This could ruin them surely as children did his marriage.
The cacáo gods must’ve been playing him as they do whenever they need humans to operate under the spell of this higher plant, guaranteeing its propagation & global distribution in a brilliant evolutionary Darwinian scheme. As if chocolate is having us rather than the other way around; as if cacáo trees have eyes & spotted Dan, sensing he’s prone. In short, with Gaia-like intelligence, cacáo seems resourcefully minded &, due to its psychoactive properties, we’re its porter & protector (or, some might say, slave). Chocolate in particular occupies a special place in nature’s apothecary because it inspires reverie, is healthful, & can be used daily without side effects. A “psychedelicacy” in medicine hunter Chris Kilham’s vocabulary. The metaphysics here may be debatable, but the chemistry of it & its universal presence are indisputable.
The news of Nacional hits what passes for streets in Marañón Canyon. All the players rally at Fortunato’s Farm. There they Hi-5 one another, throw in a few fist pumps & chest bumps too, then toast one another with some chocolate drafts.
Out of respect for, & in the thrill of the moment, everyone kisses the mother tree.
That’s right… that scrawny-looking lady Jefe Noe picked up with no nipples at the apex of her pods is, by all DNA accounts, the mother tree — the purest of the pure in perhaps all the world of Nacional. Possibly close to the mother of all cacáo trees.
He insisted. He knew instinctively by her thin pod-walls that consume less energy units, leaving more to the seeds for bigger beans. A tree puts out 100 units; this probably used only 20 of them to create the chamber-wall, significantly less than other trees with thicker pods.
Brian ambles over, telling the modest Fortunato he loves the thought of ‘kissin’ yo moma’. Noe warns Brian against any lewd gestures regarding Fortunato’s “mother”. He heeds the advice until pulling off a French kiss & an exclamation of “oh shit, the old bitch got ants… stinging ants, mother-F-er”.
Another round of laughter & the kissing ceremony ends.
The only trouble with all this: they couldn’t tell anybody. Turns out a bittersweet celebration. Not for any reason related to Brian’s swollen lips & tongue. Geopolitics would prevent them from talking about it.
GO TO PART XII –> Int’l Chocolate Diplomacy