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Theobroma Cacao -- The Tree of Life
Varieties of Cacao
If the climate and soil in which cocoa is grown are the paint and brushstrokes used to create a chocolate masterpiece, then the cocoa variety grown is the canvas upon which it is painted. Each cocoa variety provides the basis for its own unique flavor profile which the climate conditions may only enhance.
Much can be said about cacao tree varieties. Most references divide them into three groups: Criollo (pronounced cree-yo-yo), Forastero, and Trinitario. This view, though simplistic, is helpful in our discussion.
Beside the fact that many botanists disagree about these incredibly broad classifications, it must be remembered that cacao is grown in regions where the growers are generally not interested in these distinctions. For them, cacao is a cash crop they use to feed their families. When a tree dies on their plantation, a new tree is planted, and rather than being obtained from a nursery or government- or university-sponsored cacao gene bank, the genetic material is usually obtained from another tree on the same or neighboring plantation. Very often the variety is not given much consideration; instead other factors are considered more important, such as what is convenient, how many pods a cacao tree produces, as well as the number of seeds in a cacao pod.
Because of all this, many if not most plantations have a mix of genetic material, and thus it becomes almost impossible to specify what variety or varieties a plantation has on hand. When the cacao beans are harvested from a tree, they are mixed with beans that have been harvested from other trees as well. This is one of the reasons why, as far as the chocolate manufacturer is concerned, it is better to think of each plantation (or co-op) as having its own unique genetics.
Often these gene banks will collect samples from various plantations. These are typically labeled with the place name and followed by the sample number. For example, the 61 st sample collected from the Ocumare Valley would be labeled “Ocumare 61.” Some farms will tap into these gene banks for cuttings to grow their crops and then sell them to the chocolate manufacturer at a premium, since particularly good strains are highly prized. It is important to note that cacao that has been labeled Ocumare 61 does not necessarily come from the Ocumare Valley. In fact, it may have been grown anywhere in the world where cocoa trees grow. The labeling simply means that the Ocumare Valley is the origin of its genetic material. Also, this labeling means that it is a sample that originated from a single tree, and the resulting cocoa may not be representative of all the cocoa from the Ocumare Valley.
Forastero Cocoa Pod
The current classification system, criollo, forastero, or trinitario, originated from Venezuela well over 100 years ago, and just mentioned, it is showing its age. Venezuela has long been known for providing some of the highest quality cocoa beans. In fact, Venezuela was the first country to provide cocoa beans to the European cocoa markets. At the time, there was a wide variety of cocoa trees found throughout Venezuela's plantations. While the cocoa pods were of great variety in shape and color, they had two main things in common. The cocoa beans had a plump, almost round cross-section before they were fermented and dried. Furthe, the quality of the beans was excellent compared to quality found elsewhere.
The Spaniards imported into Trinidad the native varieties of cacao from Venezuela sometime during the 1600s. There they flourished until 1727, when the trees were attacked by what the growers called the "blast." Nobody today knows for sure what the "blast" was. It may have been a disease, or it could have been a hurricane or similar weather phenomenon. In either case, the end result was the same: almost all the cacao trees in Trinidad and surrounding areas were destroyed.
Around the mid- to late 1700s, new cacao trees were imported into Trinidad from Eastern Venezuela (most likely the Orinoco valley). Unlike the previous trees from Venezuela, these were much more disease-resistant, though their flavor was of lesser quality. The new trees established themselves and interbred with what was left of the previous plantations. There is also speculation that some of this interbreeding may have happened before their importation into Trindidad while still in the Orinoco valley. The end result was Trinidad being populated with very hardy trees, and while their flavor was not that of the original criollo, they were still of sufficiently high quality to be well respected within the industry.
In 1825, cocoa was introduced back into Venezuela from Trinidad. Again, the flavor of the beans from these trees was not as fine as that of the native trees. The shape of the pods produced from the trees from Trinidad was short and bulbous, with smoother skin than the long, pointed native varieties. The cocoa beans were different as well. The beans were flatter and were dark purple, in contrast to the indigenous light purple to white beans.
In order to differentiate between the native varieties of cacao and the new varieties, the native cacao was called Criollo (native), while the new cocoa was called Forastero (foreign), and Trinitario (from Trinidad). The terms continue to be used in trade until today, even though their meanings have shifted slightly over time.
Criollo Cocoa Pod
Criollo cacao typically has red or yellow pods, some being green or white (as in the case of Porcelana). The pods have bumpy or warty skin with pointed tips.
The beans, on the other hand, vary from light purple to white in color, and they are plump and full. In general, the beans from criollo cacao are considered to have a finer flavor than that of other varieties of cacao.
The criollo trees are not very disease-resistant, and hence they are hard for farmers to grow and keep healthy.
Typically when chocolate is made from the criollo beans, the chocolate is not overly rich, though the resulting chocolate will have a complex flavor that is often reminiscent of various fruits and spices. Criollo beans are therefore considered to be "flavor beans" because of their heightened flavor characteristics.
Because of trade with Venezuela, Venezuelan criollo cacao may be found throughout the entire Central American region, including Mexico, most notably the states of Tabasco and Oaxaca. Even so, these regions still have their own "native" (or criollo) varieties.
Today, Forastero mainly refers to cacao that has its ancestry from the upper Amazon basin. Through trade, this cacao has been spread throughout much of the cacao-growing world, including Africa. Today, the largest producers of cocoa beans are the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where forastero was established very early in the cocoa trade. Because of this and the disease resistance of this variety, the top producing countries are primarily forastero. Most of the chocolate produced in the world today is made from forastero beans.
Forastero Cocoa Pods
The hull of the cocoa pod, rather than being deeply furrowed with a knobby skin and pointed pod, as the criollo pods are, are relatively smooth, with more of a bulbous pod shape. In addition, the hull is also woodier than the criollo, and thus the pods are harder to open. The pods may also be red or yellow, as well as orange or purple. The beans themselves are very dark purple and are relatively flat compared to those of the criollo.
The forastero does not have the complexity of flavor of the criollo, nor does it have nearly the spicy and fruity notes that one may find in the criollo as well. Instead, the forastero has a much richer "chocolate" flavor. Because of this, forastero beans are usually considered "bulk beans," while the criollo are considered "flavor beans." Chocolate makers will typically use primarily the forastero for their chocolate blends to create a rich, chocolate flavor background, then add a variety of flavor beans to make the final flavor of the chocolate more complex and interesting.
While the cocoa from Ecuador is fine in flavor, it is generally considered to be a Forastero by popular classification. The flavor is very similar to that of other forasteros, with the addition of fruity overtones that other forasteros typically do not have. This cocoa is native to Ecuador, and thus it is a criollo (native) as far as Ecuador is concerned. As may be imagined, this could have caused plenty of confusion except that the native cocoa variety has been named Nacional , thus preventing further confusion of the criollo name than already exists.
As mentioned, unlike the criollo, the Forastero varieties are much more hardy and disease-resistant. Because of this, they are favored by farmers who, while they may not be able to command as high a price for the resulting beans, they are guaranteed of a much more saleable crop.
As the name implies, the trinitario originates from the island nation of Trinidad. Today, trinitario along with criollo, provides the basis for "flavor beans," used to enhance the flavor of today's chocolate.
As with forastero, trinitario cocoa pods are typically not pointed, and the skin of the pods is relatively smooth (compared to that of the pods of the criollo). The cocoa beans are also flat and purple when cut in half.
It is worth mentioning that as with forastero, trinitario has spread throughout the world as a major cocoa crop. Even so, the quantities of forastero grown dwarf those of trinitario—though trinitario has a finer flavor.
One of the major sites of the original planting of Trinitario was Sri Lanka (Ceylon), where it became famous for its fine flavor. Trinitario was first planted in Ceylon in 1834, and then again planted in 1880. During that same time period, it was transplanted to Fiji, Madagascar, Samoa, Singapore, and Tanzania.
Today, trinitario is highly sought after by chocolatiers worldwide for its fine flavor and is used both to provide flavor for chocolate created from "bulk beans" as well as to create super-premium chocolate when used by itself.