Disease, climate change and low wages are just a few of the reasons we are losing some of the most diverse, delicious varieties of cocoa. In this episode, we will explore some of the efforts to save the crop we love. (Hint: This includes eating even more chocolate.)
Cacao is a crop that has to be continuously grown in order to be sustained, both in ex situ collections as well as in situ on farms or in the wild. The largest and most diverse ex situ collection is located at the International Cocoa Genebank in Trinidad. It is one of more than 35 collections around the world that maintain more than 24,000 accessions (or samples) of cacao. The collection is expansive, but there is no way it can contain every known variety.
We save what we think we need. For scientists, this has meant plant materials that hold the possibility of increased productivity and tolerance to environmental factors—what can help breed what are collectively known as “improved” varieties. But, until recently, “improved” has never meant improved flavor. Ed Seguine, a former chocolate research fellow at Mars and founder of Seguine Cacao Cocoa and Chocolate Advisors, and Darin Sukha, research fellow at the Cocoa Research Centre that oversees the International Cocoa Genebank, are at the forefront of a push within cacao conservation to include flavor as one of the parameters for electing what’s saved in genebanks and shared with farmers. “Diversity means different things to different people,” Ed says. “If we recognize it, we have a good chance of preserving it.”
What’s also important to note is that not every plant within the scope of what’s been collected ex situ thrives. As Darin explained when he gave me a tour of the cacao genebank, some varieties don’t bear fruit in Trinidad, as they would in their home countries. Others, meanwhile, show diminished levels of resistance to disease and tolerance for heat. “That’s why we need farmers to grow diverse varieties, too.”
Ecuadorian chocolate is, and will always be, my first love. This isn’t because it was the first chocolate I ever tasted, but because it was the first one I tasted deeply, with full attention. After three weeks of stuffing myself full of baba and sampling liquors from all over Ecuador, I finally found the floral taste that had eluded me.
I met Maryuxi Espinoza in the final 24 hours of my three-week trip. Maryuxi—chief of product development and sensory analysis for Transmar, one of the largest cocoa exporters in Ecuador—samples every single batch of cocoa that leaves the facility, including the cocoa destined for TCHO. She knows Ecuadorian cacao.
The next to last sample of liquor Maryuxi shared with me had a flavor, I later learned, she held dear. I expected toasted nuts and a light bouquet, but I got a burst of violets: green stems, fragrant flowers. “Es floral,” she said. Yes. This was floral. This was Ecuador.
Ecuadorian cacao is among the finest in the world. The country is the birthplace of what’s known as Nacional or Arriba cacao. Arriba (meaning “up”) is a reference to cacao that comes from the upper basin of the Guayas River, as well as all the rivers and streams that feed into it. The genetic grouping also includes other diverse varieties from the region. It’s this tapestry of flavors that makes the country one of the top global producers of specialty cacao.
“Chocolate is a part of us; it is a part of Ecuador,” explained Maria De Lourdes Alvear, an analyst at Agrocalidad, the government agency that regulates and oversees agriculture. “Yes, we are a small country, but we have something no other country has: the flavor.”
The liquor Maryuxi shared with me was a surprise. While the bouquet I would later find in my coffee from Ethiopia was made up of fragrant white flowers, here I found earthy purple ones: a bed of wild violets, stems and all. I was stunned.
The beans were grown by Mina Bustamante de Caicedo, an 81-year-old woman from Vinces, a city known as “Little Paris” that boasts a mini replica of the Eiffel Tower and a rich history of cacao cultivation. This diversity found in Mina’s cacao is what we’re losing, in large part because of the diseases that plague cacao, but also because of the high-yielding variety that has been bred to resist them. You see, the country that has given the world the majority of fine flavor cacao is also the birthplace of CCN-51, a variety that is slowly but surely wiping out diverse flavors—not just in Ecuador but throughout the world.