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Ecuadorian Cocoa: Attack of the Clones

By Cocoa Runners  ·  8th November 2020  ·  Geography

According to a recent discovery, Ecuador is where ‘chocolate’ consumption originated. 

New archaeological evidence suggests that Santa Anna Florida is the first location where we can trace “drinking chocolate” (sorry Mexico – this appears to pre-date the Olmecs by a millennium or more). 

Unfortunately, despite occupying a vital place in the history of chocolate, high-quality Ecuadorian cocoa is currently under threat. Savouring the amazing “Arriba Nacional” beans from Ecuador is a vital part of the craft chocolate revolution and resisting mass-market, commodity, cloned cocoa beans

THE EARLY HISTORY

Botanists have identified fourteen “original” variants of Theobroma cacao (the tree that grows cocoa) as originating in the Northern Amazon (i.e. Ecuador and Peru) many millennia ago.  But until very recently we lacked any evidence that the fruits of these trees (i.e. the pods containing cocoa seeds) were consumed or drunk (at a minimum, the cocoa seed requires fermentation to become palatable).  Indeed, if you read most books on the history of chocolate, they suggest that the first people who drank and consumed chocolate were the Olmecs of Mexico about 1500 BC.

This all changed in 2018 when archaeologists tested pottery they’d found in Santa Ana La Florida in northern Ecuador and discovered traces of Theobromine – the stimulant in drinking chocolate (and indeed all chocolate).  

So Ecuador can now claim to be the first place we consumed chocolate, back about 5,500 years ago (so a little after wine and cheese, but way before coffee).  For more on the work of Sonia Zarrillo and Robert Blake of University of British Columbia in Canada, see here.

Sadly, we’ve currently no idea as to how people worked out how to drink cocoa, nor whether (or how) they domesticated the plant, nor how cocoa spread across South America and up into Mexico. 

MODERN HISTORY

In the 17th and 18th centuries cocoa became wildly popular in Catholic Europe as it was permissible to drink even on “fasting days” (the 100+ days of the year when food was very limited, but drinks were allowed).  Ecuador, in particular the region around the Guayas basin, became an increasingly important source of the cocoa for this drinking chocolate.

Even the onset of devastating diseases and appalling working conditions that killed off up to an estimated 80% of the indigenous peoples didn’t stop cocoa being exported.  African slaves were drafted in to harvest cocoa, and thanks to their labour by the mid 17th century, Ecuador was providing almost half of the cocoa exported from South America.

ARRIBA NACIONAL vs CCN51

Ecuador is renowned for two cocoa varietals at opposite ends of the cocoa spectrum — Arriba Nacional and CCN51. CCN51 is a cocoa variant created more for its fast growing and disease resistance rather than for its flavour.

And the story here resembles the Star Wars Movie “Attack of the Clones”, where we need the Craft Chocolate Revolution to fight back against commodity cocoa copies by celebrating the unique and wonderful Arriba Nacional cocoa of Ecuador.

Legend recounts that when traders first arrived at Guayical in search of cocoa and asked for the source of the best beans they were pointed up river and told “Arriba, Arriba” (up, up).  And the name for these beans has stuck — Arriba Nacional.

Arriba Nacional has a very distinctive flavour profile — vegetal, vinous, nutty, earthy, green are words often used to describe well-crafted bars.  And it provides a fantastic foil for many wines, in particular cabernet franc.

During the 20th century Arriba Nacional nearly went extinct as it was savaged by “witches broom” and other blights and then had to deal with a counter punch of farmers planting new cocoa varietals that “bred out” pure Arriba Nacional.  

One of the most famous of these clones is CCN51, the creation of Homero Castro, an Ecuadorian agronomist who crossbred different cacaos to produce faster growing, higher yielding and disease resistant “clones”. He named his eventual “winning” cross breed “Coleccion Castro Naranjal #51” after the town he was working in (Naranjal) and himself.

CCN51 does grow far faster. For mass confectionery, where flavour is created from additives, sugar and flavouring agents, this may well be enough.  But it perpetuates the idea of cocoa as a “commodity” product where price, not flavour, is all important. And long term this isn’t good for the environment or cocoa farmers (join a Virtual Tasting to find out more, see here)

FLAVOUR CHALLENGES

And for those in the world of fine flavour cocoa, CCN51’s flavour profile is a major problem.  To quote a few more graphic phrases CCN51 has been likened to “licking a car battery” (Pablo Spaul), “acidic dirt” (Ed Seguine) and “rusty nails” (Gary Guittard).

Indeed, trying new sample bars from Ecuador can make us feel a little like we are about to play “russian roulette”,  as sadly all too many of these bars are crafted from CCN51 beans. 

However, we do have some amazing local Ecuadorian makers crafting great bars from heirloom Arriba Nacional including a great new maker, Herencia Esmeraldas, along with Jenny Samaniego of Conexion, and Hoja Verde (and we’ve more makers onboarding soon).  Plus we are very fortunate that farmers such as Samuel von Rutte and Freddy Salazar supply their beans to makers including Pump Street, Goodnow, Original Beans and Naive.  

So to paraphrase the Star Wars movie, please fight back against the Clones.  Try some great Arriba Nacional beans and bars. Join the Craft Chocolate Revolution

WHERE TO START?

Below we’ve highlighted some wonderful bars made in Ecuador – Herencia Esmeraldas (a new maker), Conexion, and Hoja Verde, plus a series of bars crafted in the UK, France, and the US with award-winning Ecuadorian beans grown by farmers such as Freddy Salazar and Samuel von Rutte.

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