Bread, Wine Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods we Love

Simran Sethi

My first destination was a rundown tropical paradise called Esmeraldas, the northernmost province on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. The country is part of a bean-shaped area in the Amazon jungle that overlaps with Peru and is considered the primary center of origin for cacao. This region is also one of the centers of domestication for the crop—the place where cacao became chocolate. Until recently, the center of domestication designation had gone to Central, not South, America, but a reclassification of the genetic types of cacao has indicated there are multiple centers of domestication. (Of course cacao became chocolate in more than one place because, of course, anyone who encountered it would want more.)

Grenada chocolate, a gift from Chantal Coady

Theobroma cacao is part of the mallow (Malvaceae) family of plants that includes cotton, okra, hibiscus and durian. Early designations were based upon only three types of cacao: Criollo (“native”), Forastero (“stranger”) and Trinitario (“native of Trinidad”). These three identifications were genetically vague because they were based on appearance, but almost every kind of cacao—including Ecuador’s prized crop, Nacional, which is categorized as a Forastero—was slotted into these categories.

The new, more expansive classifications were published in a 2008 study by Juan Carlos Motamayor and a team of geneticists who clustered cacao into 10 genetic groupings that were organized by geographical location or by the traditional variety most represented in that particular cluster (Marañon, Curaray, Criollo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purús, Nacional and Guiana). These classifications are based on the actual DNA makeup of the plants, not just appearance.

Mark Christian, chocolate reviewer and director of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, bluntly (and brilliantly) summed up these distinctions and their expansion. “I am glad the reclassification happened,” he told me. “It was a f*cking insult to nature to think there were only three varieties of cacao.” But three varieties are easier to manage and market than 10, which is why, though incorrect, many chocolate makers still use the original designations.

In wine, the most obvious influences on flavor come from terroir, grape variety and timing (vintage) of the harvest. But those aren’t the only influences. Each glass reflects a set of decisions ranging from how the farmer pruned his or her vines to how the winemaker crushed the grapes.

In cacao and chocolate, there are also multiple factors at work. We grow up thinking chocolate is chocolate, but it has complexity and nuance, just like wine and other foods and drinks. “You think wine is more complex,” Brad Kintzer, chief chocolate maker at TCHO, explains, “but it’s chocolate. Cocoa has 600 flavor compounds. No other food has as many.”

Header image Kim Sherman for the Slow Melt podcast, a podcast on all things chocolate (https://simransethi.com/theslowmelt) which starts on 27 January.