Immediately after the “Salon de Cacao y Chocolate”, I was invited by
the organising committee to visit the area where one of Peru’s rarest cacao varieties is grown.
This special variety is a member of the Forastero del Alto Amazonas genetic variety and originates from the Amazon region in the southern part of Peru.
This cacao is only found in the southern Amazon region of Peru, in the Urubamba river basin. It is so rare that it is at risk of extinction.
During the long drive from Cuzco to the cacao plantations, I am amazed by the contrasting views of the landscape. In the space of 5 hours we descend from 4,000 metres to 1,000 metres in altitude!
As we reach the the valley, I can see the river Urubamba, which leads to the Amazon basin, where this special variety grows.
On our arrival we are met by representatives of the various groups involved in the conservation and development of this rare variety.
Its aroma and taste are particularly fruity and floral. Similar to the criollo variety, its astringency and acidity are very low. These are characteristics much sought after by leading world chocolatiers looking to develop fine aromas and flavors in making their chocolate.
As I listen to a presentation on this special variety, I can’t believe what a jewel these producers have in their hands. In addition to its unique flavours and aromas, it has strong productivity levels and is resistant to diseases and pests that can contaminate and eventually wipe out a whole variety of cacao trees — for example, the “witch’s broom”, which devastated most of Brazil’s cacao plantations during the 1980s.
I am fascinated by the history of this cacao variety. Its origins are said to date back to the Machiguenga indigenous people of the Amazon Basin jungle regions who cultivated and consumed it hundreds of years ago.
We visit the plantations of Don Sixto Hilares, who must be one of the oldest of today’s growers of cacao chuncho.
Most of the trees that I see in this plantation are at least 20 years old, and I am told that some are over 40 years old. Incredible! Having been used to the smaller trees of the CCN 51 forastero variety, I am amazed to see such tall cacao trees.
As we open the pods, the aroma is intense, with distinctive floral and fruity edges. The fruity aroma reminds me of sweet oranges. The beans’ lack of bitterness is astonishing.
The pods go from green to yellow as they ripen, a notable characteristic of this variety. I am also astonished by the softness of the pod and how easily breakable it is.
However, despite the existence of this remarkable cacao variety in the region, not everything is as straightforward as it might seem. Economic, political and social factors are hampering the development of cacao chuncho.
With the funding from The National Institute for Agricultural and Food Research and Technology, explains the scientific research that they are undertaking to develop and preserve the cacao.
The rare characteristics can really only be maintained and developed if the region’s cacao farmers are willing to work together.
This means managing and improving their cultivation techniques, improving the genetics of the cacao trees and, most importantly, ensuring excellent harvest and post-harvest processes. If the pods are harvested when they are green (unripe), and undergo inefficient post-harvest processing, the special characteristics that influence the taste of the beans are damaged. And if the beans are not well fermented, they will not find the place and value that they deserve in the marketplace.
Indeed as we visit the local chocolate factory, I observe the horror on the face of one of the French chocolatiers as he sees the “grand cru” beans transformed into cacao butter and powder ready for export to multinational confectionery companies.
However, getting local cacao farmers to work together to produce quality chuncho beans is not simple. As I later find out, the municipality is receiving subsidies for the exploitation of local gas deposits. The money flooding into the local authority’s budget is being spent on projects such as the construction of roads and bridges. And some cacao farmers are leaving their plantations to work on construction sites where they can earn more than they currently make from cacao farming.
One of the challenges no doubt that the committee will face will be to convince local cacao producers that if they farm this special cacao variety efficiently, they can make a sustainable income out of it.
On the last day of our visit we are invited to participate in a round table with the different parties involved. I share my experiences with them and give my recommendations. I really hope that somehow they will find a way to take this special variety forward and save this rare and highly prized cacao variety from extinction.