Chocolate-Myth Busters #3: Criollo Cacao Tastes Better Than Other Types?

Potential Myth To Be Busted:

Chocolate made from Criollo cacao tastes better than chocolate made with other types of cacao.

Response:

Often sound bytes and catch phrases are latched onto. These condensed bits of seeming wisdom make us feel comfortable that we really have an understanding of something. When it comes to chocolate, “Criollo is the best type of cacao” is one of the little oft-repeated phrases that can be found plastered all over the internet. The problem is that most people repeating it don’t really know what Criollo is. The question is whether any of us really know.

Historically, Criollo was the type of cacao grown and consumed by the native peoples of Central America and southern Mexico–notably, the Olmecs, and later the Maya, amongst others. This is probably the type of cacao that the Spanish first encountered, and this is the type of cacao that has generally been held in high regard ever since. It is now held that Criollo cacao broke away, at some point, from one of the populations of what is called Forastero cacao that originated in South America in the Amazonian region. At what point this sub-population of Forastero became different enough, some might say inbred enough, to be referred to as a different type of cacao is hard to say. Were people involved in the change during this early development of Criollo? We have no historical record, but considering the skill with which other plants were domesticated, there is a good chance that people were involved in the breeding of this offshoot, and that they did so for some specific reason. It is posited that the reason would be related to the lack of bitterness and astringency in Criollo due to the relative lack of polyphenols, something which also explains the light color of the cotyledon and Criollo trees’ relative fragility when compared to the susceptibility to insect attack and various diseases of Forastero populations.

In fact, the reason that this is all important is because the Criollo is so fragile that it has basically, some might say entirely, been destroyed by diseases that impact cacao. Because of this, Criollo has been hybridized, probably starting in the 1700’s, with Forastero populations to strengthen it, while maintaining a somewhat moderate level of bitterness and astringency, though there are certainly very vigorous hybrids that don’t seem to have this low-bitterness Criollo characteristic at all. As of the 21st century, there are literally thousands of hybrids with bean colors ranging from white to deep purple, and bitter and astringency qualities from low to quite high. Additionally, we now know that there are some Forastero populations that have white beans. So what?…you might wonder. What does this have to do with the potential myth above?

The point is that Criollo, as it once existed, no longer does, and if it does exist at all in its pure state, probably only does so in the middle of long-abandoned indigenous communities and/or cacao groves. Though there are some companies using the term “Criollo” on their bars, until DNA testing can be done that rules out hybridization of any kind, something that was more likely to happen than not, the term Criollo should just be seen as a relative. In other words, something is “Criollo-like” or “Criollo-type” or “Criollo-heavy” etc., but pure Criollo?? I wouldn’t bet my money on it. That said, we can see the vast majority of all cacao in the world as a spectrum, with Criollo-heavy on one side, Forastero populations on the other, and hybrids mostly in the middle. I say mostly in the middle because it depends upon the Forastero populations that we are considering. After all, Criollo and Forastero are still the same species, i.e. Theobroma cacao. They aren’t even two different subspecies. This being the case, and considering that Forastero is a very general umbrella term that is used to identify many different populations, there are certainly some Forastero populations that are more similar in characteristics to Criollo, than some hybrid cacao populations are. All of this depends on the genetic stock that was hybridized in the first place. I know that it seems that I am getting further and further off track here, but bear with me and I’ll jump right back into flavor in a moment. The point is that there is so much complexity in the cacao world that saying that Criollo tastes better than Forastero is a problematic statement. First, there is the question of whether Criollo really even exists anymore. Next there is the question of what Forastero is really signifying, and finally there is the fact that hybrid cacao populations are all over the map, with some being very Criollo-like, and some being less like Criollo than some Forastero populations are. That said…

We are still only talking about bitterness and astringency here, and there is much more to flavor than that–much, much more. Bitterness and astringency both impact flavor, but neither is an aromatic quality. Cacao has aromatic qualities even prior to fermentation and roasting, but after these two complex processes, the flavor of cacao becomes so complex that some argue, based upon scientific studies, that it has more flavor components than any other food in the world. Some of these flavor compounds are due to internal chemical changes occurring during fermentation and drying of the cacao, but others have to do with flavor compounds created by the yeast and bacteria that are then absorbed by the cacao. These absorbed flavors have more to do with the microbes that are active during fermentation than they have to do with the genetics of the cacao, and the types of microbes are dependent upon the climate, microclimate, weather patterns, and other things that would be classified as terroir. Still, there are even further changes that the cacao undergoes during roasting, and dependent upon the roast profile and the chemical compounds present within the bean, some of which are due to fermentation and drying, and others of which are due to genetics, we end up with a sum total of flavor that is difficult to decode or classify.

Have I boggled your mind yet by getting you to think about the complexity of cacao? I hope that I have, because that is the very point of this rant. And believe it or not, what I have written above is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to decoding cacao flavor. So, does Criollo cacao taste better than other cacao? Well…

If it exists, and it is fermented and dried properly, and it is then roasted properly and skillfully turned into chocolate, then…maybe. It may have lower amounts of bitterness and astringency than other cacao, but that certainly isn’t all that there is to flavor. Some people believe, though admittedly they are still mostly in the minority, that some Forastero and/or hybrid populations will give, when well-fermented and properly dried, cacao that is incredibly complex in flavor, if perhaps somewhat more bitter. What is more important? Complexity or bitterness? And are these two qualities mutually exclusive?

And here we are with more questions than answers again. Maybe that is because, at the end of the day, when it comes to foods it all boils down to personal taste. So, here is my answer in short.

In Short:

Does chocolate made from Criollo cacao taste better that chocolate made with other types of cacao?

You be the judge, and I mean this literally. Buy chocolate made by companies that take chocolate seriously. Taste it and decide if you like it. Whether it says Criollo on the label or not, and whether it really is Criollo or not, you’ll either like the chocolate, or you won’t. As you get more serious about chocolate, you’ll begin to figure out with increasing precision what it is that really draws you to a chocolate–what qualities you like most in a chocolate. Who cares what the cacao is called at that point. Enjoy your chocolate, that is the whole reason for its existence.

Very best,

Alan
Chocolate maker and myth buster

Got some chocolate myths that need busting? Send them my way by posting a comment below (even anonymously), or emailing me directly at:
customer.service@patric-chocolate.com

Chocolate-Myth Busters #2: Belgian Chocolate Is the Best in the World?


Potential myth to be busted:

Belgian (or Swiss) chocolate is the best in the world!

Response:

This is a commonly held belief and something that, as a chocolate maker, I hear often. Many people have a story about receiving chocolate brought back from Belgium/Switzerland and how it was the best that they had ever had. With all of this circumstantial evidence, one might well assume that there is a large grain of truth to the statement. Here is the actual truth:

There is no best chocolate in the world. Taste in chocolate is based upon two main things: culture and individual education/experience, and these all vary infinitely for everyone in the world.

It will certainly be possible to find people in Belgium/Switzerland that prefer dark, more heavily roasted, French chocolate, but most will prefer a very creamy milk chocolate. This is because this is what they are used to. This is what their culture tells them is good.

Do I agree personally? Not at all. I prefer the following type of chocolate:

Start with quality cacao, roast minimally, add just enough sugar to moderate innate cacao bitterness and astringency present in even the best quality cacao, conche in such a way to lead to a pleasurable balance of flavors where cacao is still the star player, age slightly for further flavor development, mold and enjoy.

Belgian/Swiss styles on the whole are more like this:

Start with mid-quality cacao, add lots of sugar, lots of cocoa butter, milk, and lots of vanilla and/or malt.

The average person off the street in the US would probably prefer the Belgian style (though that is changing), and chocolate made according to my preferences may, at first taste, be quite unexpected for people who are used to eating Beligian-style chocolate. Yet, I find that when people are wine drinkers and foodies in general, they make quite an easy transition from thinking of chocolate as brown, sweet, creamy, milk and vanilla-tinged stuff, to a product that is a a little bit thicker on the palate, and with complex notes of fruit, nuts, cocoa and an otherwise robust profile. Not everyone likes it, but many do or learn to like it more than other styles. The key is often for people to understand that it is different for a reason, and what that reason is, and then to eat the chocolate with that in mind. Expectations have to first be destroyed and then re-formed. Do you remember the first time that you tasted coffee, wine or beer? Did you really enjoy it? Some of the most complex and interesting foods in the world take time to finally understand; that is how I see it.

Does this mean that my chocolate, or chocolate that I like, is the best in the world? Not at all. It still just means that I like it best, and that there are more and more people finding value in it.

Those of you starting to feel that I am taking too much of a relativist approach however by saying that quality only has meaning in relation to an individuals culture and personal experiences, have no fear, I’ll give you something a bit more concrete.

Let’s say that we look to people who take chocolate very seriously, write about it, review it, talk about it, hold tastings, and have a good grasp of the variety of chocolate out there. If there was a general concensus amongst these chocolate literati that certain types of chocolate are better than others, couldn’t we say that this “type” of chocolate is best? I’ll leave that up to you to decide, but I’ll tell you approximately what they would choose. A chocolate:

  • Made with good/high-quality cacao
  • That is a dark chocolate with a percentage from 65%-80%
  • That has a roast profile from moderate to heavy
  • With a moderately creamy texture, often due to a small amount of added cocoa butter
  • That has a small amount of vanilla, no malt, or even no flavoring added at all

Keep in mind that all of these people are individuals and that they don’t all think as one uber-expert, so the above is just a summary that encapsulates the general tendencies of the group. It is certainly possible for a chocolate to fall within the above framework and be considered bad by most of those chocophiles and the inverse could be true. One thing that is interesting to mention, however, is that almost none of these chocolates would be Belgian or Swiss. Most would be French, Italian, and increasingly, American.

In short:

Taste is subjective, but most chocophiles do not prefer Belgian/Swiss chocolate to other chocolates.

Myth busted?
You be the judge.

Best,

Alan
Patric Chocolate
Disclaimer: There are certainly chocolates made in Belgium or Switzerland that do not fit the description given above of Belgian and Swiss chocolate. By using the terms Belgian or Swiss chocolate I mean to point to the generally preferred styles of chocolate in those countries, and not to say that all chocolate made in either country is of that style, even if the vast majority may be. In either case, my intention is not to speak badly of any companies.

Got some chocolate myths that need busting? Send them my way by posting a comment below (even anonymously), or emailing me directly at:
customer.service@patric-chocolate.com

Chocolate-Myth Busters #1: High Percentage = Healthy?



Potential Myth:

“People often say that higher percentage chocolate bars are better for you, is this actually the case?”

Response:

There has been a great deal of research over the past couple of years concerning polyphenol antioxidants in cacao and chocolate, and it does appear as though there is a good deal of scientific data backing up the potential health benefits of eating cacao and chocolate. Judging by this, one might logically assume that high cocoa-percentage chocolates are healthier than those with lower cocoa-percentages. This can be accurate, but its accuracy depends on several things:

1) First of all, cocoa percentage includes the amount of chocolate liquor (ground up, winnowed, cocoa beans), cocoa butter and cocoa powder in the chocolate. However, if we see the number 70%, this doesn’t tell us the proportion of those three ingredients. If there is a great deal more cocoa butter in one 70% bar than another, then considering the fact that cocoa butter, which is simply the fat of the cocoa bean, doesn’t contain antioxidants, then that would meant that one 70% bar could have lower levels antioxidants than another. In fact, it is much more than theoretically possible for a 69% bar to have more chocolate liquor in it than a 75% bar, and therefore have a higher levels of antioxidants.

2) Secondarily, there is the issue that the antioxidant levels in cacao are reduced substantially during the processing that makes it taste good (i.e. raw unfermented cacao tastes quite bitter, astringent, and un-chocolate-like). Cacao is one of the few foods in the world that is both fermented (and then dried) and roasted, and the fermentation and drying–and according to some researchers, roasting too–lead to a substantially reduced amount of antioxidants in the cacao itself. This means that unless you are willing to forgo the reason that people like chocolate in the first place–it tastes amazing–and essentially turn it into a bitter health tonic, then chocolate will always have reduced antioxidant levels when compared to raw, unfermented cacao. That said, if you want to choose bars that may–and that is a big, big, maybe–have higher antioxidant levels, then you will probably be best off choosing the worst tasting, most bitter and astringent dark chocolate that you can find. If this doesn’t sound appealing, then simply take solace in the fact that the best tasting dark chocolates will still have higher antioxidant levels than most other foods, and when you combine that with the beauty of its flavor, it can’t be beat.

In Short: Higher percentages on a chocolate bar can be a simple rule of thumb if one wants to figure out which bar has higher antioxidant amounts, but this rule of thumb is often quite inaccurate due to different fermentation rates of different qualities of cacao, and different proportions of cocoa butter to chocolate liquor and cocoa powder, which all impact antioxidant levels. Perhaps better is to buy the dark chocolate that you like best, while trying more robust chocolates from time to time to see if they have grown on you, in order to focus on enjoying the chocolate for what it is–a delicious food–rather than try to turn it into the next health-food fad. We all know where those fads lead, and it is rarely good place.

Myth (Partially) Busted,

Alan

Got some chocolate myths that need busting? Send them my way by posting a comment below (even anonymously), or emailing me directly at:
customer.service@patric-chocolate.com

Chocolate-Myth Busters

I’ve been doing quite a bit of myth busting concerning chocolate “facts” since the Patric Chocolate blog first started, but it took a loyal reader to point out the obvious:

“Here’s something you could run with for years […] Chocolate myth busters – published, blogged and wild rumors in the chocolate world debunked. I continue to see incorrect information take on a life of its own. “Facts” that aren’t facts.”–David Arnold

…And as soon as it was suggested, I thought, “Why haven’t I been doing this from the beginning?” Truly a “Duh” type of moment.

The problem is that I have been writing almost exclusively more lengthy and complicated articles, and then I always end up getting so busy that they often never get finished. Of course, I still intend to finish all of those unfinished items, and I’m sure that I will–sometime–but I’m realizing that I need something simpler. I need something that is relevant and interesting, but not too time consuming to write. Chocolate-Myth Busters is intended to be just such a recurring topic.

So, I have some ideas of my own, but I am also interested in dealing with topics that interest my readers. That said, please let me know of any potential myths that you would like to see busted. Here is an example of what I am looking for:

“People often say that higher percentage chocolate bars are better for you, is this actually the case?”

Trust me, no matter how simple you think a question might be, I guarantee that there are a hundred other people out there wondering the same thing, and you just might be surprised at the answer.

So, take just a second out of your day to suggest some potential myths that need busting! Feel free to add them to the comments below (no need to sign up for any account), or email me personally at:

Customer.Service@Patric-Chocolate.com

Very best,

Alan
Chocolate myth buster at your service

What Else Can Cacao Do?

Some time ago I asked you, the loyal Patric Chocolate blog readers, to speak up and let me know what you would like to see me write about. Those who responded had many great suggestions, and they have been heard! Here is just one of the suggestions:

“I know we get chocolate from cacao beans and […] alcoholic drinks are possible from the pulp. I’ve even had a pulp fruit spread. What else can the fruit (berry) be used for? Do we always discard the large outer shell?”

–D in NYC

Many parts of the cacao fruit are delicious, from the unique “chocolate” notes of the fermented and roasted cacao seed to the sweet-tart floral qualities of the seeds’ fresh pulp; the cacao fruit truly has a lot to offer. The one exception seems to be the exocarp of the fruit–normally referred to incorrectly as the “pod”–from which no food or beverage seems to be derived. I have tried to keep things reasonably simple, so I haven’t touched upon foods such as chocolate pastries and candies for which many ingredients are needed, and in which chocolate often plays only a supporting role. Here are just a few of the uses to which people have put cacao throughout the years:

 

Cacao Fruit: The Mystery Continues

Out of all of the interesting chocolate-related facts that surprise people, one of the most surprising tends to be the fact that cocoa “beans,” far from being true beans, are actually the plump, buttery-pulp-covered seeds from a somewhat melon-shaped fruit that grows on the trunk of a tropical tree.

This fact, however, often overshadows a lesser known point of interest, which is that the fruit, often called a “pod,” is not a pod at all. It is also not a fruit type called a “drupe,” though even many academic papers and books make this mistake. Examples of actual drupes are “stone fruits” such as peaches, plums, cherries, and almonds. In other words, drupes have their seeds encased in a hard shell, or endocarp, and this “pit” or “stone” is then surrounded by the, generally, fleshy and edible part of the fruit. Cacao, on the other hand, is arranged quite differently. Cacao fruits have a somewhat thick and tough, though not hard, skin, within which is contained the many pulp-covered seeds. The seeds themselves do not have a hard shell. The fruit is, therefore, not a drupe in the least. What is sometimes referred to as the “shell” of the cocoa bean is nothing more than the dry seed coat of the fermented and dried cacao seed. When the seed is still moist, the seed coat could not be further from anything resembling a shell.

All of this being the case, and after a 2007 conversation with Steve DeVries of DeVries Chocolate really drove this point home, I began to wonder what the accurate botanical classification of a cacao fruit should be, if not a drupe. With this in mind I stumbled across a paper by Douglas Lehrian and Gordon Patterson of the Hershey Foods Corporation, in a collection published in 1983, that mentions quite clearly that the cacao fruit is a berry! The discovery was exciting, but still, I was a bit hesitant to rely on this information alone. I forwarded this find to DeVries, who promised to pass it by some botanists that he knew, and after some weeks, the botanists seemed not to have any major problems with the classification. At last, I thought, we can be relatively certain that the cacao fruit is actually a berry, and at this point I finally shared the findings with my Patric Chocolate blog readers. Yet, this certainty was not to last…

Unknown to me, the cacao fruit drama crept quietly along in the shadows, hidden by the busy chocolate holiday season which runs from October through April. Come June, however, I got an e-mail from DeVries in which he shared the updated opinions of the previously mentioned botanists. Time had allowed them to reflect more thoroughly upon the issue of the cacao fruit, and they were now of a slightly different opinion. Interestingly, the botanists felt that the cacao fruit was actually not a true berry, but instead was closest to a pepo, one of many types of false berries. However, they still did not feel strongly enough about this to make a final pronouncement, and this fact in itself led to additional skepticism on my part.

As I did some research into what exactly a pepo was, having never before encountered the classification, I wrote back to DeVries with my thoughts, some excerpts of which follow:

“As for cacao, it does seem very pepo-like, but I’m starting to wonder if this is a case of the human desire to classify something within an extant system that is really not complex enough for it.

It seems to me that generally in pepos, most of the edible fruit is not directly surrounding each seed as a pulp, but instead there is a type of internal seed layer with a fleshy edible layer right behind it (cucumber, various squash, [most] melons), and right before the “rind.” The cacao fruit certainly looks similar externally to some pepos, though, but I still wonder. Could Theobroma fruits, including cacao, be different types of fruit, yet to be named? Maybe this is why the botanists could be having some reservations–because they are wondering similar things.”

Of course, I am no botanist, and my common-sense pronouncements certainly don’t settle the issue entirely. For this reason, I was interested to receive a further e-mail from DeVries that included a quote from an 1861 publication of the American Pharmaceutical Association. The following botanical description of the cacao fruit was given:

“The capsule (berry-like,) not dehiscent, quinquelocular, with polysper-
mous compartments, and a ligneous leather-like bark. Seeds
nestling in a buttery fleshy pulp. ”

Once again, it is stated that the cacao fruit is not a true berry; rather, it is “berry-like.” Still, it doesn’t seem that we know enough yet to say what the fruit truly is; we simply keep stating what it isn’t. Are we happy enough to note that the cacao fruit is the perfect specimen of the rare and little-known Pepo-Like, False Berry? Perhaps not. So, if luck is on our side, the botanists will not lose interest in the issue either. After all, if they finally conclude that there is no extant classification that accurately includes cacao, then, at last, the botanists might be able to come up with a new classification that finally takes cacao into consideration.

Until then, the cacao fruit mystery continues, but we have come a long way in only one year. I’ll be sure to keep you posted if any further botanists decide to weigh in on the issue. Until then, fine, dark Pepo-Like-False-Berry-seed paste maker, Alan McClure, signing off.

Blogging and the Three Chocolatiers

No, I promise that I haven’t forgotten the blog. In fact, quite the contrary, as I have been working on it more than ever. Unfortunately, however, the two topics on which I have been working have required so much research that the blog has seemed to be stuck in its tracks. On the other hand, once the topics are finished, they will each be taking up multiple blog posts, and will keep the Patric Chocolate blog moving at a good clip.

In the mean time, I hope that all of you in the fine chocolate belt of the US–Missouri of course–will join me this Tuesday for an event called the “Three Chocolatiers.” Though most of you know that I am not a chocolatier, but rather a bean-to-bar chocolate maker, I didn’t dare destroy such a clever title, so for one night only, an honorary chocolatier I’ll be.

I’ll be doing a demo on chocolate making from the bean, with plenty of things to taste, including chocolate, nibs, and roughly ground, pre-conched chocolate. Additionally, after my demo, a true chocolatier/confectioner genius Christopher Elbow and then author Elaine Gonzalez will also be doing demonstrations. It should be a great time!

Here is information about the price and the location–it is a fundraiser by the way, done in conjunction with Les Dames D’Escoffier:
http://www.kcrestaurantguide.com/chocolatierform.pdf

Best,

Alan

Request For Blog Topics

Hello all,

I already have a list of topics that I will be covering on this blog over the next year or so, but I certainly want to make sure that I am not overlooking other issues that are of particular interest to my readers. If you are interested in hearing my take on a chocolate-related topic about which I have not yet written, then please leave a comment below mentioning the topic.

For those of you that don’t have any particular topics in mind, if you see one in the comments below that does interest you, then please note your interest in the comments as well.

The topic ideas need not be technical or science-related, though they certainly can be. If you simply would like to know more about something, or if something just doesn’t seem completely clear to you, then that is fair game for a topic.

I look forward to seeing all of your ideas!

Very best,

Alan McClure

Chocolate: The Best Known, Least Known Food

Not long ago, during a friendly conversation about chocolate–as if there were any other kind–culinary historian, and NYC chocolate tour director, Alexandra Leaf, said to me that she thought of chocolate as the “best known, least known food in existence.” That comment got a chuckle out of me as I realized that not only is it true, but that the reason it is funny in the first place is due to the irony that something as well-loved as chocolate, a food to which people are exposed, in one form or another, virtually from infancy, a food that impassions a large part of the the human community with its complexity, unique flavor and texture, is virtually a stranger to us in terms of how it actually comes to be chocolate!

To some extent this is to be expected; after all, with expanding globalization it is rare nowadays that many of us know from whence all, or even most, of our food comes. Still, it is probably safe to say that even if we are not sure whether the orange that we are eating comes from Florida, most of us are reasonably certain that the orange did originally come from a tree. Even this much is not generally known about chocolate. In conversations I’ve had over the past several years, with people of all backgrounds, levels of education, economic statuses, sexes, and everything in between, most people truly are astonished when I tell them that chocolate has its ultimate origin in the bitter, pulp-covered seeds of a fruit that grows on a tree. This need not be the case!

Personally, I have dealt with the issue of chocolate’s complex provenance many times, and in many ways, in the posts of this blog, and there is a good chance that all of you reading this post have seen me mention these facts in one way or another. However, my blog posts are not enough. They simply cannot reach the majority of the population. That is why you, as the choco-literati, must take it upon yourself to help educate others about the glory and the beauty of cacao and its long and difficult voyage to chocolate. You can do it! You can spread the good word, the chocolate gospel, the truth about the best known, least known food in existence! The next time a friend of yours bites into a chocolate bar in front of you, by all means drop a little chocolate knowledge in their general direction. After all, though most people know only a little about chocolate, it is a subject that few can resist. You might even get to share a bit of their chocolate as a sign of appreciation.

Enjoy,

Alan
P.S. My utmost appreciation goes to Alexandra Leaf for the inspiration for this post, and for her work as a culinary and chocolate educator!

The Chemistry of Chocolate Part 2: General Cocoa Bean Chemistry

Chocolate doesn’t just grow on trees. Well, actually it does…kind of. Chocolate is made from the fermented and dried seeds–often called cocoa beans–of a fruit, a large berry in fact, that grows on a tropical tree between approximately 20ºN and 20ºS. It was once commonly thought that two subspecies of cacao trees existed, Theobroma cacao ssp. cacao—commonly called Criollo—and Theobroma cacao ssp. sphaerocarpum—commonly called Forastero. However, more recent research suggests that the idea of two separate subspecies is incorrect, since though Criollo and Forastero populations certainly have differing phenotypes, they are sometimes far more similar than different, with some Criollo and Forastero populations being much more alike than either is similar to various hybrid populations. We will touch on this issue more in this installment of The Chemistry of Chocolate, as it is quite relevant to the chemistry-based role that genetics can play on the flavor of cacao. First, however, let it be noted that it is common in the chocolate industry, and especially in chocolate marketing within the industry, to talk about the following three categories of cacao: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario.

We have already seen the terms Criollo and Forastero, and the name “Trinitario” stems from the hybridized trees of Criollo and Forastero parentage in Trinidad following a “blast”—either disease-based or hurricane-based—in the first half of the 18th century. Because the name Trinitario had relevance in speaking of the first well-known hybrids of cacao, it gradually also came to be used in a generic sense by many people, for almost any hybrid, despite the fact that many hybrids have nothing to do with Trinidad as their origin. Therefore, though in Trinidad there is still said to be true Trinitario cacao, in the sense of it being closely genetically related to the original, and though some of this cacao was spread to other geographical regions, the term is generally more confusing than it is helpful. For this reason, I will not use the term Trinitario, but will use the more generic term “hybrid,” which, though leaving much to be desired, since it lacks the specificity needed to delineate the hundreds—at least—of cacao hybrids that now exist, will serve the purposes of the Chemistry of Chocolate series just fine. Finally, then, for ease of discussion, we can generally say that there are three main categories of cacao: Criollo, Forastero, and hybrids, and within each group there are certainly countless populations with divergences in phenotypes and flavor profiles of prepared samples, and this means that none of these categories can be seen as a single homogeneous “variety.” However, there are also some general rules that can be stated, which are gleaned from a study of the various populations that are generally seen as fitting within the three categories listed above. Let us first discuss Criollo.

We know that Criollo cacao was historically cultivated by the Olmecs–perhaps as early as 1000 BCE– and then the Maya in Central America and Southern Mexico, and it is likely that these Central American cacao populations had originally come from populations in western Venezuela and the surrounding areas, where such Criollo populations continue to exist, though often in slightly hybridized forms. Interestingly, Criollo matures more slowly, produces fewer fruit, and has low disease and pest resistance. With all of these seemingly negative qualities related to Criollo, one might wonder why the Olmecs and those pre-historic peoples who came before them even bothered to propogate it. The answer is likely in the flavor, in that the Criollo cacao populations are generally particularly nutty, mild, lacking bitterness and astringency, and therefore are often more subtle and pleasing as regards flavor. This being the probable case, despite the drawbacks of such cacao, it gradually came to be favored by certain indigenous peoples of Central America, finally making its way from its likely origin in Venezuela, up to Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico. The underlying chemical reasons for the flavor of the Criollo cacao, which are related to the genetics of this type, are also quite interesting, and will give us a foundation for dealing with the chemistry of the other cacao types.

One clue that helps to unlock the mystery of the general flavor differences between categories of cacao, is that while Criollo seeds have white interiors prior to fermentation and drying, Forastero seeds have purple interiors. The missing purple chemical in Criollo is the same one that colors polyphenol-rich blueberries: a flavonoid bound to a sugar that, when taken as a whole, is called an anthocyanin glycoside. Though this compound itself is not thought to be bitter or astringent, it has been noted that where it is present in cacao, certain other flavonoids are present as well, and in higher amounts than in cacao with no purple pigment. These other flavonoids, such as catechin and epicatechin, tend to be bitter in their simpler non-complexed form, and in their complexed forms, somewhat less bitter but more astringent. Astringency is a dry/puckery feeling in the mouth caused by the higher molecular weight flavonoid polymers–often referred to as tannins–reacting with protein in the saliva and on the tongue, and though always present in cacao, in excess, the sensation can be quite unpleasant.

Interestingly, not only does the relative lack of these particular flavonoids lead to a less harsh product in the case of Criollo, which has about 2/3 of the amount that Forastero has, but the balance of flavor is shifted even further, as other flavor notes within the cacao become more noticeable in the absence of the flavonoid harshness. Therefore nutty, fruity and other positive qualities of the cacao tend to be more noticeable. However, flavonoids aren’t the only bitter chemicals that are present in Forastero. Theobromine, an alkaloid related to caffeine, is also quite bitter, and present in perceptible quantities in Forastero. We will touch upon theobromine in more depth when discussing roasting later in the series, where it will have a large role to play. Another potential difference between Forastero and Criollo cacao, though the amounts of data present to support it are still limited, is that Criollo or Criollo-heavy hybrids may generally have more free amino acids in their composition. This could well play a role regarding flavor differences between Criollo and Forastero during roasting, a possibility that we will also discuss later in this series.

As for hybrids, they can have many different combinations of the above Criollo and Forastero traits. They can seem remarkably similar to Criollo, with only slightly bitter and astringent, very light, pink cotyledons, or they can seem far more like Forastero, with purple, more bitter seeds, and sometimes hybrids can actually include many more bitter and astringent compounds than even average Forastero populations. Hybrids can, thus, not be lumped into one category for the sake of flavor description or internal seed chemical composition, especially since the degree of variation within the whole range of hybrid populations far exceeds variation within Criollo and Forastero populations. This is one reason why, though all three terms–Forastero, Criollo, and hybrid–can be tricky in terms of usage, almost always requiring a bit of supplementary definition, the aforementioned term “Trinitario” is almost useless unless very clearly defined. That said, Criollo also risks becoming a useless term as some people have tended to refer to any hybrid with some amount of noticeable Criollo parentage as Criollo, when, as a hybrid, it obviously cannot be. It is reasonable, therefore, to want to know the whole story behind someone’s usage of the terms Criollo or Trinitario before taking them at face value.

Moving on–so far we have taken a brief look at what role genetics can play in terms of determining cacao chemistry and flavor, but though genetics play a large role regarding cacao flavor, due to flavonoid, theobromine, and, potentially, free amino acid levels, the environment and climate in which the cacao trees grow also substantially impact the chemistry of the cacao seeds and therefore their flavor. As with all fruit trees, the health of the tree itself is important, and so weather patterns that impact temperature, rainfall, humidity and solar radiation levels all play a role in the flavor of the seeds within the cacao fruit. In addition to these various climactic conditions, soil-type, other plant species growing in close proximity–for example shade trees or leguminous atmospheric nitrogen-fixing plants–and even mycorrhizal fungi in the soil that have a symbiotic relationship with cacao, all make substantial impacts on the health, and therefore the cellular chemistry, of the tree and its fruit. In fact, all of these conditions could arguably be combined underneath a single umbrella-term that the French call “terroir”, a word that one normally hears used in relation to grape vineyards and wine. However, it is equally applicable to other crops, and cacao among them. Terroir is responsible, to quite a degree, for the flavor of cacao that comes from different regions, origins, or even given plots of land within regions. Additionally, the various impacts that terroir can have on cacao stretch beyond the growing location and reach into post-harvest processing, as each location, or origin, has different microbial populations that impact the chemistry and flavor of the cacao in dramatic ways. The next part of the Chemistry of Chocolate series, therefore, will delve into this realm of post-harvest processing, as we cover harvest, fermentation, and drying.