The mission of any true wine enthusiast is to recognise the character of the different wine producing regions. Chocolate connoisseurs are equally passionate about the origins of their chocolate. I defy anyone who has begun to appreciate the distinct tasting journey of fine chocolate not to want to know more about the origins of these fabulous flavours. It’s hard not to get bitten by the craft chocolate travel bug—an insatiable desire to seek out the tangy fruits of Madagascan cacao, the gentle floral Ecuadorian Arriba Nacionals, the deep, dark and earthy Brazilian Forasteros and explore the fruits, spices and molasses of the Caribbean.
Origin may be just one piece of the flavour jigsaw, but it’s still a good indicator of a bar’s taste potential.
So, let’s do a quick fly-by of the cacao growing regions. Starting at the historical heart of chocolate, Mexico and Mesoamerica, we will navigate along the tropical belt of the equator to discover the different homes of cacao.
MEXICO & CENTRAL AMERICA
Although Cortez and his Spanish conquistadors were the first to recognise the value of this mystical fruit, Christopher Columbus was the first to come across its almond-like beans in the tiny Bay island of Honduras; he just failed to convince anyone of its taste or trade potential (big mistake!).
Today you will find many European, North American and Canadian makers working with beans from Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatamala, the original Mesoamerican growing areas. In the best bars you will find complex combinations of pure chocolate, nuts, spices, dried fruits, olives and even leather. Until recently, bulk cacao dominated the plantations in Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Mexico but, after some superb fine-flavour varieties have been rediscovered and re-established, these origins too are regulars in the craft chocolate line-ups.
South America: a continent of fine chocolate extremes. From Brazil’s simple structured earthy Forasteros to the delicate tastes of Venezuela’s prized white Porcelana beans.
Since the Spanish chronicler Lopez de Velazco discovered the native cacao of Venezuela in the late sixteenth century, the name Venezuela has become synonymous with quality. Porcelana offers a sublime flavour experience: pure chocolate notes in harmony with hazelnut, cream and strawberry. Venezuela’s Chuao beans, grown in an enclave of one of Latin America’s oldest national parks and dried in the sun-drenched patios of the iconic blue and white colonial church, are some of the industry’s most sought-after and when you taste the intense red fruits, blueberries and molasses of a good Chuao you will understand why Carolus Linnaeus named cacao the ‘food of the Gods’. Then the names of Caranero, Rio Caribe and Sur del Lago promise bright fruit and spice, and look out for beans from Guasare too. You may struggle to get hold of some Venezuelan bars, but your patience will be rewarded!
Heading over to Ecuador, you will come across both bulk and fine flavour cacao. The indigenous Arriba Nacional variety can deliver subtle floral and fruity profiles but also sumptuous sugars and dark dried fruits.
Peru is one of my favourite origins, primarily because of its wild, spikey character but also because it personifies the cultural and geographical diversity of Peru. As international and local makers learn to identify and express the unique flavour attributes of its varieties and terroir, you can expect some impressive tasting journeys zigzagging between fruity, floral, nutty and spicy profiles.
Brazil is home to the straightforward, earthy, chocolate, disease-resistant Forastero; these varieties were discovered by the Portuguese before being introduced to their colonies in Africa. If you like your chocolate bold then there are some great bars crafted by European and local makers, teasing out the subtleties of the best of the Forastero beans and wild indigenous varieties.
You will also find Colombia and Bolivia on the fine chocolate map. Wild indigenous cacao and varieties with very respectable parentage give some delightfully mild but sumptuous flavours, and some of the characters behind the chocolate are just as colourful as the cacao and well worth checking out.
The Caribbean delivers everything you would expect from its cacao: molasses, deep tropical fruits, spices, rum and tobacco. There are surprisingly few craft makers using cacao from Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of the Trinitario hybrids, but, for a true taste of the origin, look out for tree-to-bar makers Tobago Estates. You are much more likely to find bold fruit and spice bars from the Dominican Republic.
To Africa, where 70 percent of the world’s cacao is grown and our demand for cheap chocolate is perpetuating the poverty of the majority of cacao-farming families, child labour, trafficking and deforestation. Ironic when, 500 years ago, cacao was so revered that it was used as a form currency.
The vast majority of cacao grown in Africa is destined for the industrial market, but there are glimmers of light and even some bright shining stars in the tropical forests of the African continent. Growers and makers are working together to nurture trees with fine flavour characteristics, improving fermentation and drying techniques to give growers access to the speciality chocolate market. Look out for bars using beans from the Kokoa Kamili co-operative and the Udzungwa National Park in Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Africa’s jewel in the crown: Madagascar.
Known for its biodiversity and exports of coffee, spices and vanilla, Madagascar, or ‘the Red Island’, is home to Trinitarios, Forasteros and genetically identified ancient Criollos. Think of Madagascar as the Shiraz of chocolate—appealing to those who like bright, luscious and bold fruits and one of the easiest origins to recognise. The island’s geography, geology and climate provide a unique terroir that gives the ancient varieties a new lease of life, just like the New World Shiraz wines. When you see Madagascar on the labels of dark bars, expect bold citrus and tropical fruits with deep red berry flavours.
Finally we arrive in Asia, where cacao was introduced by its European colonisers throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today, Indonesia is the third largest producer of cacao. But, just like Africa, Asia is predominantly a producer of bulk cacao. Fine cacao can be found in Vietnam, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Java, Bali and (more recently) Solomon Islands, Fiji and India. You will find fruity, earthy, spicy profiles, with the use of wood fires to dry the beans in Papua New Guinea adding a distinct smokiness to the final flavour.
More on fine chocolate origins:
The Perfect Daily Grind introduction to the world’s chocolate origins: https://perfectdailygrind.com/2018/07/fine-cacao-chocolate-origins-around-the-world/
Dame Cacao’s travel blog featuring visits to chocolate origins with Dame Cacao: damecacao.com/travel
For an in depth analysis of the genetic and geographic character of cacao origins take a look at the Chocolate Sources section of the C-spot site: https://www.c-spot.com/atlas/chocolate-sources/
Book and chocolate pairings investigating origins:
THE HOUSE OF SLEEP MATCHED WITH SOME CHARACTERFUL CHOCOLATE FROM OMNOM, MENAKAO, THE SMOOTH CHOCOLATOR AND AKESSONS
Read Louth Coven’s review of Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep along with four characterful, Madagascan origin chocolate bars:https://louthcovenbooksandchocolate.wordpress.com/2017/09/13/the-house-of-sleep-with-madagascan-origin-chocolate/
CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD BY GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ MATCHED WITH DISTINCTLY COLOMBIAN CHOCOLATE FROM CHOCOLATE TREE, DORMOUSE CHOCOLATES, MANUFAKTURA CZEKOLADY & ARTISAN DU CHOCOLAT
Read Louth Coven’s review of Chronicle of a Death Foretold matched with distinctly Colombian chocolate. https://louthcovenbooksandchocolate.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/review-chronicle-of-a-death-foretold-and-colombian-chocolate/