We have all been there.
Fascinated by the word Criollo on a chocolate bar. Thinking we were getting the best kind of cacao possible. Willing to pay a few more extra dollars for a “rarity”.
Because this is what we were told: Criollo cacao is delicate, with an incredible flavor profile and represents less than 1% of all the cacao harvested in the world. So if you get your hands on a chocolate bar made with these white beans, your money is well spent.
The word Forastero is like hidden from the public eye instead. That is the cheap stuff used in Africa by big manufacturers! Stay away. This is what 90% of the cacao market is made of. A disease resistant, no-fine flavor kind of cacao. You don’t want that in your chocolate, they tell us.
Trinitario is the compromise. Somewhere in between Criollo and Forastero, this cacao can achieve a nice flavor while being fairly productive. No real shame, and no real glory.
But what if I told you that:
“Classifying cacao as Criollo/Forastero/Trinitario was one of the great foundational linguistic screw-ups in the history of the New World, though rather short of Columbus calling the Arawak peoples he met Indians.”
These are the words of Steve Bergin, renowned cacao expert and environmentalist who supports cacao farmers across Latin America. With his Conservation Cacao, he helps cacao farmers improve the quality of their crop through selection of cacao fino varietals and better post-harvest practices.
Here is what he has to tell us about cacao varieties.
Why does the classification Forastero/Trinitario/Criollo is not enough anymore to describe the variety of a cacao pod?
“There are two parts to this problem. One is that since the mapping of cacao’s DNA and the first major studies to classify cacao with DNA, we know that there are something more than 10 major families of cacao (we will find more as more collecting/study is done). So 3 names is just plain wrong. There is a bunch of stuff that was being lumped together, and diversity that was being ignored. This is further complicated by the way in which we’ve historically talked about cacao.
Classifying cacao as Criollo/Forastero/Trinitario was one of the great foundational linguistic screw-ups in the history of the New World, though rather short of Columbus calling the Arawak peoples he met Indians. Not only is the classification incorrect, in that there are more than 3 kinds of cacao, but the screwy naming ends up leading into all kinds of misunderstandings and misconceptions.
‘Criollo’ in Spanish means someone or something originally from some place. ‘Forastero’ is from somewhere else.
The first agronomists to try to classify cacao, all non-Spanish Europeans, a German, Preuss, and a bunch of Brits, Morris, Hart, Pound, Cheesman, simply picked up the local Spanish vernacular for referring to the varieties they were seeing. They actually realized early on that there was an issue and that a Criollo cacao for someone from Venezuela was going to be a Forastero for everyone from everywhere else. But as it was already common usage for the written classification, they just plowed ahead. In early days, they also referred to Criollos from different countries, i.e. Nicaraguan Criollo, and even some non-origin countries, Java Criollo. Mostly though these agronomists were talking about Venezuelan varieties thought of as fine varieties and that had also been taken to Trinidad before ‘The Blast’ there.
To muddy the waters further, there was also the old argument going on for centuries about where the true origin of cacao was located, Central or South America.
The Spaniards had first come into contact with cacao in Mexico and Central America and the first cacao taken back to Spain was this cacao. The Mayans had been cultivating cacao for ages and ages, and it was an incredibly important crop in their culture. Then in Aztec culture too, after the Aztecs began demanding cacao as tribute. It seemed logical to many then that cacao must have originated in this region and so they referred to this cacao as Criollo as well. The Mayans had selected and cultivated cacao with 100% pure white beans, and this Criollo has been something of Holy Grail within the cacao and chocolate community.
There are also certain reputations or qualities that are associated with the terms Criollo/Forastero/Trinitario. Criollo is fine but less productive and more delicate. Forastero is poor quality but heartier and more disease resistant. Trinitario is the Goldilocks in-between. There is some relation here to actual traits of cacao varieties in the field, but it’s a gross simplification that also leads to massive errors.
Criollo is by no means the only ‘fine’ cacao, not all Forasteros are disease resistant, not all have the flavor profile of a Calabacillo, etc. This leaks over into farmers thinking also that native cacaos in general, whether called Criollo or not, are less productive and should be replaced by introduced volume varieties.
It would be great if we could get a redo on naming the cacao families, but it is really positive that more and more people are beginning to understand that there is more diversity to be accounted for in cacao than this wrongheaded 3 family thing. There are also the Scalia originalist types in the industry that stamp and holler if someone uses ‘Criollo’ to talk about an origin variety that is not the ones in the texts. I’m not as strict about this, one can say Criollo sometimes if it’s clear what country you are in.”
“People need a way of talking about cacao that is from where they are and we may only know that much sometimes, that it’s an old cacao from there, but we don’t have the DNA analysis to tell us which family it is. People also use ‘Nativo’ or ‘Silvestre’ or ‘Comun’ to talk about these cacaos depending on where they are, but sometimes they say Criollo. I’m certainly not going to go around telling Latin American farmers that they don’t use Spanish properly because some 19th century agronomists messed up.
So Criollo is problematic, but Forastero is an abomination. I’m absolutely of a mind that we should abolish the term. It’s both ludicrous and insulting to be standing out in some center of origin region and talk about a cacao variety from there and call it ‘Foreign.’
We have the tools now to better identify these varieties; we can make a bit more effort in giving them proper names.”
Is there anything like “Pure Criollo”?
“Are we talking about Pure Criollo that the Mayans had? There are trees that are certainly at least some of the same material that the Mayans had.
There are single trees which have been found in cenotes in Mexico, so that material was placed there for ritual purposes. I’ve gone out with local farmers and researchers and found old Mayan Criollo trees in the wild in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, in places that had never come into contact with any introduced varieties of cacao. Keep in mind that none of this cacao is actually in production and you can’t go and buy any chocolate made from these Criollos.
I’m working with some farmers in Guatemala at the moment to see about bringing an old Criollo back and there are number of other efforts around, but it remains to be seen exactly what the results will be.
We have to remember as well that improvements in fermentation are fairly recent history, and that the Mayans and Aztecs did not eat chocolate as we know it. Sugar, which you need to make chocolate, did not exist in the Americas before the Spanish. The Mayans and Aztecs and other peoples consumed cacao based drinks that were similar to the tejate or pozole drinks that are still prepared in Mexico and Central America.
The notion that there is some Pure Criollo cacao that will be discovered and that it will have an incredible flavor profile and be much more authentic in its magnificence than other cacaos, really is part of a mythology. To some degree it takes focus away from the amazing diversity of native cacaos found around South America, in the center of origin. We all still get really excited when we find an old Criollo in the jungle and really want to have chocolate from it, but it’s because of the history.
When thinking about ‘purity,’ Mayan Criollo is different from other varieties, in that a certain cacao was taken at some point from the Amazon Basin up to Central America. We don’t know how or exactly when, but we do know that it was over 3,000 years ago. It has a smaller genetic diversity than other families that have been studied, as it all came from this cacao that was brought from elsewhere (the first ‘Forastero’) as opposed to populations at center of origin.”
“It was then selected and cultivated for many, many generations, but scientists who look at the DNA say it all falls pretty close together. In the Amazon Basin, one can find wild cacao that almost certainly has not ever been mixed with other varieties so they could potentially be even more pure when it comes to being the same as what that cacao variety was like a million years ago without the intervention of humans (and cacao has been around for millions of years, way longer than us).
What’s important is to conserve all of the origin varieties that we can. If they go out of existence, they are gone forever and all living things have value in and of themselves. There is also the term ‘heirloom’ which gets thrown around a lot in ways which are not very precise, so people need to be clear about what they are talking about.”
Does it make sense for consumers to develop a preference for a “country of origin” with all the cacao varieties that can be planted in the same country?
“In general, I always encourage people to buy origin chocolate (chocolate that at least says on the label where the cacao comes from). If you’re not familiar with craft chocolate makers, it’s the simplest way to distinguish industrial chocolate made with volume cacao and chocolate where someone has gone to trouble of sourcing from a specific area.
Country of origin can be a way of differentiating on a macro level, just like you might buy an Italian wine. But ideally we can start offering consumers more information about varieties, and they should hop around a bit and try to find origin varieties that maybe they haven’t tried before. A chocolate made with CCN-51 grown in Ecuador or Peru is going to still be chocolate made with CCN-51. Unlike wine though, not very much cacao of a single variety is planted in fields, CCN-51 being the exception.
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Most farmers’ fields have a mix of things, which can be good for the farm, for productivity or risk of disease, but it makes it complicated to talk about and name the cacao they produce and to quantify how much origin variety they have and how much introduced.
I work at rescuing origin varieties, things that have not been mixed with introduced, volume varieties, and then at helping farmers to select the best of these and to improve fermentation and drying so that chocolate makers can then have new varieties to make some amazing chocolate and everybody wins.”
“These origin cacaos can give value to the farmers for producing something that is theirs and can give consumers chocolate that more fully utilizes diversity and has different, unique flavors. So region is better than country, and if it is made with origin varieties rather than introduced is really important as well.
Last year, some great chocolate makers that collaborate with me and I brought up a container of cacao from the Pangoa region in Perù for the first time. A little chocolate had been made with cacao from there in the past and I got there in my travels going up and down origin countries looking for places with potential and I found really interesting cacao there. It took us three years though of working every harvest to get the fermentation and drying improved so that it was up to level chocolate makers could make something great with.
We still have more work to do in selecting and propagating more of the best varieties to make it even better and I’m doing the same work in other areas and other countries. If we don’t do this work, if these origin varieties don’t get identified and rescued and analyzed for flavor, then they end up getting lost. Farmers make economic decisions every harvest cycle. Should I keep growing this, or should I grow CCN? Should I grow cacao, or raze all the trees and run cattle?”
What is something that chocolate consumers just don’t get about growing and harvesting cacao that you’d like for them to know?
“That there is this diversity to discovery that is likely way beyond what they had imagined and that chocolate can reflect all this range of flavors.
When we get things right, the transformation of cacao to chocolate is an incredible connection back to the land. There is beauty in cacao in all its varieties and, when care taken, we get at the end something to enjoy in the chocolate that is right up there with whisky and wine.
Cacao is also, in the tropics where it naturally grows, likely the best sustainable crop that we have. When it’s grown with proper amount of shade, it provides habitat in crucial areas where rainforest is not within protected parks. You can create agroforestry systems utilizing cacao as main element along with other trees to regenerate landscapes.
Cacao is not always done this way, but chocolate makers and those with an interest can work with farmers to push in the right direction. Some chocolate makers care more about this than others, but some do make an effort and there is opportunity for us as a community to do so much more. If you’re buying origin chocolate, there is a much better chance that your purchase is connected back to origin cacaos and that you’re keeping more cacao and trees in the ground. Buy more origin chocolate!”
A big THANK YOU to Steve Bergin from Conservation Cacao for these precious insights in the world of cacao varieties!
What is YOUR opinion on cacao varieties?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.