THE DIFFERENT CACAO VARIETIES
There are three varieties of Theobroma cacao, as it was officially named in 1753 by the Swedish scientist Carl von Linné. They are Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario, and multiple hybrids exist of each strain.
If you are wanting to find the best chocolate, it is important to understand what cocoa beans the chocolate maker is using, and what the differences are between these varieties of cacao.
Criollo and Trinitario are the fine varieties prized for making chocolates with the most interesting and complex flavours. Forastero is typically the hardier, more reliable strain and has a higher yield of cacao pods. As a result, it’s easier and cheaper to grow, which is why it is generally used to make mass-produced chocolate. It’s consistent and reliable, but can be rather bland and somewhat acidic.
The reason all this matters is that fine varieties of cacao all taste very different, infact there are said to me more than 400 different flavour notes in cacao. Think of cacao like wine or coffee. If you have your favourites drinks, then imagine the fun to be had in seeking out your favourite chocolates? Do you prefer nutty or fruity, caramel or earthy? You can discover more about the different flavours and how to taste chocolate here.
In Maya and Aztec times, lower-grade cacao was mixed with maize and other seeds, while high-quality chocolate was drunk in a purer form. It is the same now. Manufacturers use cheap, less interesting Forastero cacaos to make confectionery bars and save the fine, rare beans for making rich, flavoursome dark chocolate.
Because there is such a huge quality range in cacao, the chocolate industry has always attracted counterfeiters and swindlers. Aztec market traders, when selling cacao beans, often used to make their wares go further by mixing them up with avocado stones, bits of dough, wax, clay and anything else that could pass for the real thing. In Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, chocolate was frequently diluted with brick dust or red lead, and lard was added to cacao butter to bulk it out.
These days, ingredients lists show everyone how much fat, sugar and lecithin goes into your average chocolate bar. It is amazingly people still call it chocolate!
The Criollo and Forastero varieties came first, but although they both evolved in the Amazon Basin, they are quite different. Criollo beans are what the Maya and Aztecs went wild about, the strain that later seduced and enchanted Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today, Criollo tends to be the preferred bean of chocolate connoisseurs. The beans are tantalisingly rare, accounting for only c. 3% of the world crop, and unusually they are often white in colour. A great example is my Chulucanas 70 dark chocolate with its soft notes of raisins and plums, made with a fine Piura Criollo bean from the Morropan province in Peru.
The Trinitario bean has an interesting history. When virtually the entire crop of Trinidad’s Criollo cacao was wiped out in the eighteenth century – either by a hurricane or by a plant disease of some kind – Forastero trees were introduced to the island, where they cross-pollinated with the few remaining Criollo trees to produce a new strain of cacao. Trinitario is hardier than Criollo, but tastier than Forastero, so it’s very versatile.
Some of my favourite chocolates are made from Trinitario beans. I make my Rio Caribe 72 dark chocolate from a bean that grows in the beautiful northeast coastal region of Venezuela. It has classic nutty, coffee notes and layers of complexity. This is what I use to make Milk of the Gods and numerous cakes and desserts.
Venezuela is home to many of the world’s finest cacaos, in particular Criollos. This is in part because when they discovered oil, they lost interest for a while in the less lucrative cacao and did none of the replanting with modern productive hybrids that so many countries did. Venezuelan cacao used to be called ‘Caracas’ wherever it was imported, but now it is known by the region in which it grows, just like wine. Chuao, which is considered by some people to be among the world’s finest Criollo cacao, comes from a village in Venezuela very near to my Hacienda El Tesoro. Porcelana Blanca, another highly prized variety, was originally called Maracaibo because it came from the area around Lake Maracaibo.