Friday, January 18, 2008

20 varieties of Cacao



We carry more than twenty different flavours of cacao beans, although 90% of these beans come from one region of Chiapas Mexico, we have found that flavour profiles for the beans varies dramatically.

There are a number of variables to take into consideration.

1. We work with small producers, the largest of which has a less than 8 hectares of land in cacao production. The individual producers are responsable for their harvest, their fermentation, and their sun-drying. Many producers harvest and process the cacao differently, but all with the ideal of producing the best possible cacao. The orchards vary in soil make-up, types of shade giving trees. They can also vary significantly in terms of humidity and moisture, not to mention soil erosion, or in cross-pollination by midges.

2. The variety of cacao growing is an important factor. We have documented over 15 different varieties of cacao in the region, not to mention rare forms of albino cacao and cacao real from other regions we work with in Oaxaca. In the Lacandon jungle where we work, a percentage of the crop is definitely criollo, although the majority is made up of hybrids, trinitarios, and forasteros. One interesting characteristic is the wide range of variation amongst the pods due to the sexual reproduction and cross-pollination of the indigenous varieties of cacao with those that were brought to the region in the early 80's when re-settlement was occurring.

3. The time of the harvest and the amount of humidity in any given year affects the amount of pulp in the pod which can dramatically affect the fermentation process.

4. Some producers rather than harvesting all at once, will begin the harvest and let some pods sit for a week while they harvest all the rest. Provided that this is done in the shade of the jungle canopy, these pods sitting on the ground can help to develop the bean flavours in highly interesting ways.

5. Fermentation is necessary to kill the seed and to further develop the flavours. In this step the seed at first drinks in the juices from the fruity pulp hoping to find water for germination. However, as the seed drinks in these juices the whole mass of cacao rises in temperature due to the chemical reactions in the fermentation process to such a degree that the seed is killed, and the juices that it drank in are subtly transformed into flavour notes that await further development. If this is not done properly the cacao germinates and creates a very bitter pill indeed.

Depending upon the quantities of beans fermented, the ambient temperature, and the style of fermentation, and most importantly the degree to which they are mixed and the number of days of the fermentation, the process yields vastly different results. Even subtle factors such as whether it was fermented in the orchard or in the comunidad can affect the results of the fermentation.

Many growers use banana leaves to help with insulation, as well as with extra yeast that helps the fermentation process along.

6. Sundrying the cacao beans is obviously dependent upon the sun, therefore in the rare years that there is little sun during the harvest in Chiapas or Oaxaca, the beans can develop a different flavour. During this step it is important that the seeds are turned and agitated so that it is even, and some even suggest that better results can be obtained when the cacao is not subjected to intense sunlight.

7. The location in which the beans are stored, and the types of bags also have an effect on the cacao as it can absorb other odours or humidity, and if left exposed to the air in small quantities can even go a little bit stale.

There are still more factors that contribute to the flavour profiles of the beans. What we like to think is that as we discover and chart these flavour profiles, we become better able to help chocolatiers and food artisans to get the most out of their cacao beans, and to come up with an authentic chocolate creation that is truly theirs.

Many people talk about their favourite chocolate bars, but for me I am more of a cacao connoisseur. Even more than a tasty chocolate bar, I enjoy a well seasoned bean.

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