Time to add a new maker to the Artisan List. Aequare Chocolates was founded by Californian chef who migrated to Ecuador to make chocolate from the local cacao. Ecuadorian cacao has a long and storied history, including a near wipeout from witches broom blight. Jeffrey Stern, the founder, maintains a blog showing his process for making things like chocolate coated cacao beans, and has an interesting post about the replacement of the “classic” Ecuadorian cacao with more disease resistant strains. Stay tuned for a review….
Farming cacao is a tricky, difficult business, and the long history of fast moving diseases that infect cacao has made it even more perilous. Diseases like witches’ broom and black pod have wiped out cacao farming across whole countries. Witches broom devastated the cacao industry in Bahia, and also nearly killed the industry in Ecuador. There are worries that the crops in Africa that supply most of the world’s chocolate could fall prey to this disease, which has proven remarkably hard to control.
It’s not unknown for a disease to decimate crops worldwide. The Gros Michel banana was the dominant variety until the 1950s, until Panama disease started claiming farms. This banana is now essentially extinct, and was replaced by the Cavendish variety that you’ll find at your local Safeway now. (Now there is speculation that the Cavendish variety may be headed for the same fate.)
In a heroic effort to save chocolate, Mars, IBM and the USDA are teaming up to sequence the cacao genome in the hopes of developing more disease resistant trees. Let’s hope that their efforts pay off, and perhaps translate to hardier crops of the smaller, rarer varieties we chocolate geeks crave.
National Public Radio ran an interesting feature on Cacao farming this morning. As part of their series on climate change, the piece focuses on how cacao can be grown under existing forest canopy, and hence is a way to farm and preserve existing rainforest. The NPR page, in addition to some good information on how Cacao grows, also has a photo of Mars’ chief agronomist, who looks a little like Santa Claus on a tropical vacation.
While today, most of the prized Criollo beans tend to come from South America (particularly Venezuela), it’s thought that the bean originated in Mexico. While Mexico’s modern cacao production is far behind some other Latin American countries, there is an increasing amount of growing happening in the Tabasco region.
We’ve been interested in getting more details about Tabasco cacao, but much of it is grown on small plantations (often part of larger co-ops), so it’s not as though you can find them on Google! Fortunately, doing some digging, I came across a list published by Mexico’s department of agriculture that has information on co-ops in Tabasco, including cacao co-ops. I also came across a website called Tabasco Market that lists a handful of producers.
A few of these actually have e-mail addresses, so we’re going to start there. Hopefully we’ll be able to get some information on exactly what they’re growing and how they’re growing it.
This site collects a wide variety of information about Hawaiian cacao growers. It appears that Dole and some smaller farmers are successfully cultivating cacao.
David Mason, a CT classmate that is starting a small bean-to-bar business in Asheville, NC pointed me to ChocoSol Traders, a group based out of Oaxaca City that is working to improve Mexican beans and provide a higher-value market for those farmers. These folks might be a good source for small startup quantities of beans. Apparently the good folks at Taza source part of their beans through ChocoSol.