Adventures in Peruvian Chocolate
by Jack Danylchuk
Five of us sardined into a road-weary Toyota sedan for the six-hour journey from Cusco to Quillabamba, a small town in the shadow of Machu Picchu, and according to a Belgian researcher, the original source for Chuncho, the progenitor of all the fine, fragrant cacao in the world.
As the condor flies, the distance to Quillabamba is barely 100 km, but between Cusco and the lush valley of the Urubamba River looms Abra Malaga, a windswept 3,200 meter pass that squeezes the two lanes of pavement through endless hairpin turns and brief, steeply pitched straightaways.
Altitude, scenery and adrenalin make for a breath-taking ride. The downhill run from the summit to the Amazon jungle draws scores of mountain bikers. Our driver was no less thrilled for making the journey twice daily, and threw the Toyota into corners with the passion of a Formula One driver racing for the championship.
Peru had just defeated New Zealand to secure a berth in the World Cup and the country convulsed with a euphoria that registered on seismic devices in Chile. So conversation naturally focused on football, Peru’s chances and the crazy money it would take to see the games in Russia.
The afternoon of the match in Lima, the team checked into the hotel where I was attending a symposium on cacao research and I snapped some candid photos. My fellow travellers, farmers returning from a day in the city, were impressed, and no less proud to hear of the fame of their local cacao, even though they, like many Peruanos, almost never eat what the outside world calls fine chocolate.
My trip to Quillabamba was the final leg in an interrupted journey that began a decade earlier, in a rural market in Ecuador, which has long held a reputation for fine chocolate. Several women were offering thin slabs of what appeared to be broken slate. It was chocolate, they insisted. After 10 years of tasting chocolate in Mexico, Central America and Peru, it lingered in my memory as the worst. Now, I was on my way to taste what might be the best.
The conference, sponsored by the International Organization for Cacao and Chocolate, was opened by Peru’s president, Pedro Kuczynski, a clear indication of the importance the government places on cacao.
For more than 20 years, cacao has been on the front line of a program to replace coca in subsistence economies of Peru’s vast tropical hinterland. The US government has poured millions into the effort to plant thousands of hectares of disease-resistant, high-yield hybrids like CCN-51. As a direct spin-off, processing co-operatives have been established and thousands of agriculture engineers have been schooled in the details of cacao cultivation, harvest, fermentation and drying.
Eradicating coca has proved difficult: drug cartels have moved operations into ever more remote areas of the Amazon. But cacao production has soared. Valued at just $8.5 US million in 2000, cacao exports topped $230 million in 2014 and are expected to reach $500 million by 2021.
The conference touched on every aspect of the $110 billion dollar a year global chocolate industry, from long-term sustainability in the face of persistent issues like child labour and meagre rewards for subsistence farmers, to the impacts of global warming on a crop that grows only within 20 degrees of the equator, and the search for new disease-resistant hybrids.
I was there at the urging of Peruvian chocolatiers to hear the presentation by the Belgian scientist Evert Thomas. It was a conference centrepiece, and got an enthusiastic reception from Peruvian government officials, who welcomed the message as a further endorsement of the country’s status as the cradle of cacao and the leading source for much of the very best.
According to the hypothesis Thomas has drawn from a growing mound of genetic evidence, cacao found refuge from the last ice age in the deep valleys of southern Peru. It was spread from there, mostly by human intervention, throughout the Amazon and Mesoamerica, and with the arrival of the Spanish, around the world.
The progenitor of all fine cacao, according to Thomas, is Chuncho, a variety native to the valleys of Peru’s southern-most departments. It’s a name derived from long-vanished original inhabitants of the region. It’s also a derogatory term Peruvians apply to rural bumpkins. Chuncho comes in several varieties, with pods that might be narrow and elongated, like a rough banana, or small and round with a delicate shell. The beans range from pale violet to deep purple and the flavour profile leans toward fruity.
Thomas was building on a paper he published in 2012 in PLOS ONE, an open scientific journal, and the work of fellow cacao investigator Juan Carlos Motamayor who turned the chocolate world on its head in 2008 with the assertion that there are not just three cacao types — Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario — but at least 10, and many more waiting to be found in the Amazon. According to Motamayor, all of the cacao in Mexico and Central America, Colombia and Venezuela is Criollo. Curray and Nacional are the dominant cacao in Ecuador. Chuncho is Contamana. The upper Amazon, cacao’s area of greatest genetic diversity, also nurtures extensive stands of cacaos that Motamayor identified as Iquitos, Maranon, Nanay and Purus. The chocolate world quickly righted itself and moved on without adopting the new nomenclature, staying with the term single origin.
Motamayor wrote in PLOS ONE, in 2008, that cacao survived the ice age just off the equator, near the borders of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, in its area of greatest genetic diversity. The area is near the Chinchipe River where archaeologists have found evidence of cacao use 5,000 years ago — oldest on record, so far.
Sonia Zarrillo, an archaeologist then attached to the University of Calgary, found traces of cacao, chiles and maize in a stone jar unearthed in southern Ecuador, suggesting a beverage that might have been similar to the drink favoured by Aztec nobility.
Motamayor speculated that cacao seeds were part of ceremonial and diplomatic exchanges between the people of the Chinchipe and early cultures on the Pacific coast and eventually reached the Olmecs and Maya.
When Pizarro invaded South America the Spanish were already sending cacao beans from Mexico across the Pacific to be planted throughout the Philippines and south Asia. The conquistadors reported no evidence of cacao veneration or use among the indigenous people of the Andes and the Amazon.
Peru has always ranked high as a source of fine cacao. Piura White, or Piura Porcelano, identified by its creamy white beans and its terroir in Peru’s hottest department, is known for its mellow flavour, and the intensely fruity and buttery Chuncho with its violet to deep purple beans, have long been exported to specialty chocolatiers in Europe.
A decade ago, Dan Pearson and Brian Horsley, two Americans sourcing fruit and produce for Newmont Mining’s giant Yanacocha gold mine at Cajamarca, stumbled across a large swath of a white bean cacao in the jungle east of the Maranon. Tests by the US Department of Agriculture determined that it was Nacional, a type of cacao that made fortunes in Ecuador before the First World War but was thought to have been lost to disease 100 years ago.
“Until I saw those strange trees, with pods growing from the trunks like so many footballs, I thought chocolate was a Hershey bar,” said Horsley, who lives in Cajamarca with his family and travels to remote farm communities on the Maranon River once a month during the harvest season, to gather and process the beans. It’s a 17-hour commute, by road and riverboat.
Making the best chocolate is not unlike making fine wine. Variety and terroir, bean selection, fermentation and drying are all critical in determining flavour and quality of the finished product. Horsley and other artisanal producers have found that most farmers are best left to farming.
“They are good at it,” said Horsley, but most were conditioned to selling beans in bulk to buyers who mixed the harvest from hundreds of sources to make the anonymous bulk chocolate that goes into cheap bars and bonbons.
The solution — paying a premium for properly ripened cacao and managing fermentation and drying — is a tactic used by many of Peru’s artisanal chocolate makers who have stepped into the supply stream and pulled other wild cacaos out of the anonymous pile of chocolate mass.
They have created a new grade of chocolate, tree to bar, that exceeds the capabilities of bar makers who buy their beans already fermented and dried.
“If I could do bean to bar I would,” says Samir Giha, a partner with Eduardo Lanfranco in Cacaosuyo, which poured its first bars in 2013 and two years later made its mark in London and Paris, winning gold and silver medals.
“It would cost much less in time, effort, and money. But if we want to have the flavour of the bean and preserve it, then we have to be hands on, all the way. We are tree to bar. We want the chocolate to reflect the flavour profile of the fruit. That is the new way. The old way, the European way, relied on beans that were not in the best condition. They were heavily worked to create texture and mouth feel. To me, that chocolate dies on the palate, where it is replaced by sugar or vanilla.”
Many bean to bar makers now label their product as ‘single origin’ cacao, which sidesteps the question of genetics. Unless the cacao comes from an orchard of known hybrids, there is no easy answer to ‘what is it?’ Some make the considerable effort to spend time with the farmers and cooperatives, to see the beans harvested and processed, and buy directly from the producers, which is more relevant to the quality of chocolate than organic or fair trade certifications.
Lisi Montoya of Shattell Chocolate was the very first of Peru’s new wave of artisanal chocolate makers. The former travel agent turned to making chocolate in her home almost a decade ago when the internet swallowed her travel business.
Montoya took a different route to sourcing beans for their extensive line of organic, single origin bars, touring Peru’s many cacao co-operatives, inspecting their processes and testing samples of their beans for flavour and quality.
The line includes chocolate made with CCN-51 beans from Tingo Maria.
CCN-51 is something like Dr. Frankenstein’s sensitive monster. CCN-51 (Collection Castro Narjanal) takes its name from its developer, Homero Castro, and its place of origin, Naranjal, Ecuador. It has a reputation for being bitter and astringent, better suited for cheap bulk couverture than fine, and expensive, chocolate bars in fancy packages.
“The criticism of CCN-51 and other hybrids is unfair,” says Montoya, whose bars made from Chuncho beans garnered an armload of gold medals at the recent chocolate salon in London. “I think our Tingo Maria bars prove that hybrids can make good chocolate if they are processed with care.”
Montoya isn’t alone in her opinion, but the proof is in the tasting. The sharp flavour of the Tingo Maria bar fades quickly, while the deep, rich fruit of Shattell’s gold medal bar made from Chuncho beans is long and satisfying.
Many artisanal chocolatiers see the hybrids as a threat to wild cacaos that may gradually be overwhelmed through interbreeding with the sturdier hybrids. Brian Horsley thinks Peru’s cacao farmers would be better served if the US Agency for International Development and NGOs like TechnoServe that deliver the coca-suppression program in Peru, planted native cacaos instead of hybrids.
“The hybrids are big producers, but they require fertilizer or they quickly deplete the soil. If the farmers can’t afford it they lose all their effort and the quality of the dirt. They are also creating a monoculture that is at risk of being wiped out by disease, just as Nacional was in Ecuador,” says Horsley.
Victor Ganoza, chief of mission for TechnoServe in Peru, is unapologetic for the CCN-51 program and dismissive of wild cacaos in general: they don’t put enough money in the pockets of farmers who might produce 700 kilos of cacao a year.
“As long as buyers insist on $2.50 a kg for all cacao, CCN-51 will dominate,” he says. “Wild cacao doesn’t even taste like chocolate. If you believe the experts, it’s fruit and flowers and nuts. Chocolate makers reach for CCN-51 when they want to create the familiar flavour that everyone recognizes.
“And who will pay to keep the wild exotics going? A poor farmer with two hectares and a family to feed?”
Giha thinks the rich flavour of the wild beans that go into Cacaosuyo’s Lakuna bars worth the effort required to reach the supply of wild cacao harvested by an isolated band of recently contacted Awajun; they live in small villages scattered in the jungle east of the Maranon River, hours by boat from the nearest road.
“It’s a different world,” said Giha.
“These are people who have no word in their language for company. The Awajun eat only what they harvest or hunt. There is nothing else. They are wary of outsiders so contact with the rest of the world is usually brief.”
The conference ended with excursions to Quillabamba or the germ plasm bank in Tarapoto. On Sam Giha’s recommendation, I chose a less expensive option, a farm tour and a night at El Mangal, a small agro-tourism lodge at the trailing edge of Maranura, a farm village a few kilometres short of Quillabamba. El Mangal is so discreet that the taxi driver couldn’t place it, even though he passed it twice a day. The farmers had never heard of it, but after a false lead, I was pointed in the right direction. There is no sign on the long, white wall that deflects traffic noise, but an open gate beckoned. Beyond it, a spring gushed from the rocky hillside and wound through a lush tropical garden.
Adolfo Figueroa and his family have been developing the farm for more than 40 years. It holds more than 250 species of plants, most of them native to the Amazon, and groves of Chuncho cacaos, some of them 100 years old and still producing fruit.
Ross Figueroa led me down a winding garden path, sampling passion fruit and crushing aromatic leaves of cinnamon and cloves. She pulled a ripe yellow pod from one of the hybrid cacaos and broke it open against the tree trunk, revealing a cone of beans surrounded by white pulp.
The taste of the pulp can foretell the character of the bean and the nature of the chocolate. This was acidic, almost sour — okay for chocolate mass. We spit out the seeds and, followed by a silent and barely visible cloud, moved on to her baby — a rare and much sought after type of Chuncho.
Theobroma cacao, the food of the gods, is fertilized by just one insect, forcipomyia. Related to mosquitos, the tiny biting midge is almost visible as it makes its feeble flight among the trees, extracting blood tribute from all who enter with exposed legs and arms.
Ross’s baby is a prime specimen of Cascara de Juevo festooned with small green globes about the size of an orange. When ripe sometime in January, the pods with their eggshell-thin walls will be filled with purple seeds so dark they are almost black.
El Mangal will send 20 or 30 kilos of the beans to favourite customers in Italy and France. The rest will be retained for use in El Mangal’s kitchen and made into barely sweetened bars of dark, dense chocolate.
There was a late lunch of vegetable salad supplied by the abundant garden and Aji de Galina, a Peruvian standard of shredded chicken breast in a cream sauce of the country’s distinctive yellow chile. Dessert was a dark nugget of chocolate ice cream made with Cascara de Juevo, 95 per cent pure except for the hint of sugar to accent the deep fruit of the cacao. Anthony Bourdain, eat your heart out!
For all their success at international competitions, Peru’s artisanal chocolate makers are largely unknown and untasted at home, despite some clever marketing and enthusiastic support from culinary luminaries Gaston Acurio and his partner Astrid Gutsche. The government has subsidized travel and display space at international trade shows, including one in Ottawa last January, but in the domestic marketplace, Peru’s artisanal chocolatiers are on their own, fighting for space on shelves dominated by cheaper domestic products and well-known imports.
Until recently, buying bars by Cacaosuyo, Shattell, Nina, or Marana would require a treasure hunt through upscale boutiques and restaurants in half a dozen of Lima’s 30 plus municipalities. That changed when El Cacaotal, a one-room boutique, opened late this year in Barranco, with shelves full of bars from new and established bar makers. Shattell’s gold medal win touched off a buying frenzy that required special production runs.
Wong’s, Peru’s premium food retailer, agreed to stock Cacaosuyo and Shattell. The company’s store in central Miraflores, Lima’s richest municipality, in late November had a selection of Cacaosuyo bars, easily missed on the bottom row of a shelf dominated by cheaper chocolate from Europe, the US and Peru.
Samir Giha has an explanation: “Until we won medals in London and Paris, Peruvians didn’t think it was possible to make good chocolate here. They tend to look elsewhere for quality and they are famously stingy with money. They would rather buy a European bar, even if it isn’t as good, because it’s cheaper.”
Want to taste chocolate from Peru, or bars made in Canada with chocolate from Peru? Sweet Lollapalooza Confections in Edmonton has won prizes for their chocolates enrobed in high-quality Peruvian chocolate. SOMA in Toronto and East Van Roasters in Vancouver have won prizes for bars sourced in Peru. A wide selection of Peruvian chocolate is available through a British online store: CocoaRunners.com.