Cocoa

The plant Theobroma Cacao originated around the high basin of the Amazon River. From this point of origin the plant spread northward and eastward and gave birth to several different varieties. The specific type of cocoa used is a very important factor in determining the overall quality of a chocolate bar. Based on a traditional Venezuelan classification still used by chocolate producers (though the classification does not have a scientific basis), we can divide cocoa into three major categories: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. Venezuela, the major cocoa producer at an international level around 1650 AD, called the finest local cocoa the Criollo to distinguish it from the Brazilian, inferior cocoa, the Forastero. On the island of Trinidad, at the beginning of the 1700s, most of the Criollo plants were destroyed by an unknown event and Forastero plants were planted in their place on the same soil, giving birth to a hybrid cocoa of very good quality called Trinitario.

Today these three types of chocolate are defined as such:

  • Criollo: The very rare and finest cocoa that originated on the border between Columbia and Venezuela. Criollo was used by the ancient Maya population, and today represents less than 1% of the overall worldwide production (this figure may vary according to the degree of genetic purity we use to define the Criollo plant).
  • Forastero: The Brazilian cocoa, exported by the Por- tuguese merchants to western Africa in 1822. Today this cocoa represents the largest production area at an international level, but it is of the lowest quality.
  • Trinitario: This is the name used today for all hybrid cocoas, not necessarily those that originated on the island of Trinidad. 
  • With the discovery and publication of the cocoa genome at the beginning of the year 2000, we were able to identify at least 11 different types of cocoa that originated in South America: One kept the name Criollo; the cocoa from the lower Amazon river (previously Forastero) was named Amelonado; and the other important varieties are Ecuador Nacional (a chocolate of prestige), Bolivian Nacional and several Peruvian varieties (Peru is in fact the cradle of cocoa biodiversity). From these 11 varieties, through the centuries, more than 100 clones of Trinitario have been produced all over the world. The panorama of cocoa varieties is therefore much more complex than what most think, and it is indeed similar to the extensive panorama of wine grapes. 

    Most of the chocolate bars produced today are blends of hybrid varieties, which are cultivated in western Africa from the original Forastero cocoa. The finest chocolates are the mono-origin (cocoa cultivated in one specific area) and mono-variety, where with each variety we can taste very different aromatic characteristics.

    There are three major areas that cultivate cocoa:

  • Latin America (16% of all cocoa production): Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Trinidad, Dominican Republic and Mexico.
  • Asia (12%): Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
  • Africa (72%): Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania and Madagascar.