Sometimes you go looking for one thing and find another. It happened the other day when I went calling on a local chocolate company, Amano Chocolates in Orem, Utah. They have won awards for having produced the best chocolate in the world. However, I found something I wasn’t looking for. I found a story.
Dan Pearson and Brian Horsely were looking for miners to sell their food and mining equipment. While working with a mining supply company in Peru, they came upon some trees that Pearson did not recognize. He says, “There were football sized fruit growing right out of the trunks”. He determined to get a sample of the seeds and leaves and had it shipped to the Agricultural Research Service in the United States. The ARS determined that the plants were 100% Nacional – a breed of cacao thought to have been wiped out by a disease called witches broom.
About fifty years ago Ecuador was raising some of the best chocolate in the world. Then the plants began to wither and the pods turned black and didn’t produce. Farms were lost; people despaired of growing cacao. Some grew coca instead to pay for children to attend school. This put them at odds with the United States government’s war on drugs.
Homero Castor arrived to save the day. He was from northern Ecuador and he stood only four feet tall, but his idea was gigantic. To save the cacao, it was crossed with an inferior cacao plant with superior ability to withstand disease. Homerito named it after himself and the places he lived. Colección Castro Naranjal with a 51 for the number of attempts he made before he found success. There was only one problem. According to Gary Guittard, owner of the famous chocolate company, it tastes like “rusty nails”. But it produced ten times as many pods as the Nacional variety.
In 2009 Ecuador was again on the edge of a cacao boom. Encouraged by USAID, (United States Agency for International Development) they grew a CCN-51 and a variety of hybrids of the Nacional plants, with varying degrees of the DNA from CCN-51 included.
According to award winning local Utah producer, Art Pollard of Amano Chocolates, when buyers would arrive in Guayaquil, Ecuador and ask where they could get the best beans, they were told to go up river. “Arriba! Arriba!” (Up! Up!) Arriba Nacional became the name of the particular chocolate grown in Ecuador. In the past few years, Western Europe has purchased over 60% of Ecuador’s crop for fine chocolates, surpassing the chocolate hungry North Americans. Some chocolatiers have even been able to win awards with the CCN-51 variety.
Art reminds us that cacao is a cash crop. When a tree dies or needs to be replaced, growers do not go to the local nursery or university for certified plants. They use cuttings from plants that have produced the most pods. Because very few chocolate bars are actually eaten in the places where it is raised, few farmers consider the taste. The use of hybrids and clones is common.
However, the pure Nacional was thought lost. That is until Pearson and Horsely found it growing in the Marañón basin in Peru. They rejoiced with chocolate aficionados around the world because pure Nacional was thought to be extinct. According to Dr.Lyndel Meinhardt, of the Agricultural Research Service, “These are very rare”. He went on to explain the white beans are found in trees that have been undisturbed for hundreds of years. The trees were growing far above the altitude where Arriba Nacional had previously been found – at about 3,500 feet above sea level.
Varieties of chocolate differ and there is argument over the best types. There seems to be some agreement that the very best chocolates are those that produced from white beans. While most cacao beans are a rusty brown to purple, white beans (which produce brown chocolate – we aren’t talking about ‘white chocolate which has no solids but only the fat and sugar in it) produce a non-bitter flavor. The chocolate is intense and rich, but the aftertaste is clean and inviting on the tongue. About 40% of the beans from the Nacional found in Peru’s Marañón river basin are white. There are white beans produced in Venezuela called Porcelana that are also very rare.
Coca growers in Peru are also under stress from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID tries to get farmers to replace their coca plants with cacao trees of the CCN-51 variety. This could cause cross-pollination and loss of native plants. The new trees would carry the CNN-51 genes so cross pollination with pure strains could lead to undesired hybrids. This makes the growers and connoisseurs of fine chocolate unhappy.
USAID says its foreign policy is not for aristocratic tastes, but to help struggling farmers produce as much as possible. It still encourages the use of CCN-51 by farmers. Other voices are speaking out. Maricel Presilla, author of “The New Taste of Chocolate” said, “The Peruvian Amazon is the cradle of cacao”.
Astrid Gutsche, wife of Gaston Acurio, both known for their love of marvelous food, said “This idea of native cacao is quite new and I believe it’s the future for Peru. We have something that no one else has.”