I don't know about you, but when I hear the term Nacional applied to cacao, two words spring immediately to mind:
Ecuador has long been thought to be the home of cacao Nacional, a variety of cacao unique in the world: it is the only cacao that has a name for its flavor — Arriba.
Yet, Pure Nacional — as it has been named and is being promoted by Marañon Chocolate — is from Peru, and the chocolate made from the beans does not (at least to me and many others I have asked who have tasted it) have any of the distinctive orange blossom/jasmine aroma that is associated with the name Arriba. Marañon Chocolate even acknowledges that Nacional is known for fruity/floral aroma on the home page of its web site, yet the chocolate did not deliver on that expectation.
According to USDA ARS (United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service), Peruvian Pure Nacional (from here on in, Nacional.P[eru]) and "pure" Ecuadorian Nacional (from here on Nacional.E[cuador]) are genetically one and the same. "Pure" Nacional.E, is thought to have disappeared in Ecuador as a result of a blight that began in 1916 and that wiped out some 95% of Nacional stands in Ecuador within a few short years. However, there are some key differences between Nacional.P and Nacional.E, differences that many (including me) might think are expressions of meaningful genetic differences:
The story of the discovery and voyage to market of Nacional.P is remarkably similar to that of Volker Lehmann and the wild beans of the Beni (Bolivia), the cacao silvestre that are the basis of Felchlin's Cru Sauvage among other chocolates. Brian Horsley (a ChocolateLife member) has been working in Peru for many years and stumbled across this remarkable strain of cacao. Horsleyy realized that he had something different and special and, working with stepfather Dan Pearson, a California-based investment professional, worked to bring the cacao to market. Along the way, samples were sent to the USDA ARS lab where genetic testing confirmed that the cacao was a match for "pure" Nacional.E.
A short aside: early in 2010, after my first trip to Bolivia to visit Volker, I encouraged him to send samples to USDA ARS for testing. Tests revealed that the wild beans of the Beni constituted a unique genetic cluster, separate from the ten proposed by Juan Carlos Motomayor in 2008, bringing that total up to fourteen.)
As with the wild beans of the Beni, the logistics of getting the Nacional.P beans to market are challenging. In both instances, the beans are wild harvested, and collecting them centrally and fermenting and drying them is only the start of the process. In both locations, getting the beans from the collection center to a place where they can be exported requires many different forms of transportation and can take weeks or longer before they get on a boat for shipment overseas to make chocolate. Nacional.P is not unique in this respect.
Like the wild beans of the Beni (and unlike Nacional.E), Nacional.P displays a remarkable resistance to many cacao diseases (or, at any rate, the cacao stands show little evidence of disease), and cacao professionals are unsure why this is the case. It is conjectured that the habitat (an isolated mountain valley) and the fact that there has been no deliberate breeding/selection may have something to do with this. At the moment, no one knows for sure what is cause and what is effect.
Although the folks at Marañon Chocolate are not publicly revealing the name of the company that has been making the chocolate from the beans, it’s obvious: Felchlin. Mention Switzerland and 1879 longitudinal conches in the same sentence (on the home page of their web site, for example) and that narrows the possible players down to just the one. Furthermore, when we were served samples of the chocolate at the launch event on January 11th at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education), those samples had the words "Grand Cru" embedded in them from the mold in a design that is instantly reconizable as Felchlin’s. Not only that, the chocolate is 68% and is conched for 60 hours - the same as Cru Sauvage. And finally, two people associated with the marketing of the beans and the chocolate, Paul Edward (aka Chef Rubber) and Franz Ziegler, both have long-standing ties to Felchlin and their US distributor, Swiss Chalet Fine Foods.
The question is: “Why all the secrecy?” That lack of transparency extends to the location of the valley where Nacional.P grows. From an intellectual property perspective I suppose it makes a little sense – Cacao Marañon is protecting its investment, fearing, perhaps, that someone may come in behind them and secure the supply out from under them. All we have been told is that the valley is somewhere along the Marañon River downstream from Lima. The lack of transparency is troubling, especially in an era where there is intense interest and scrutiny in origins and stories about shenanigans in Chuao.
According to what was revealed at the launch, work is underway in expanding production, which amounted to ~12 MT (tonnes, or metric tons, 1000kg) of beans in the just-past harvest year. Much of this increase will be achieved through a grafting program aimed at delivering a more uniform percentage of white beans, which will make consistent, uniform fermentation easier. Unlike "wild cultivated" programs in Bolivia, where no selection is being made, the grafting program being undertaken by Marañon in Peru appears to be a classical approach of selecting a single variety (or very small number of varieties) for propagation for a specific set of desired traits. In the long run it will be interesting to see what this does to both yield and disease resistance.
Research in Ecuador on Nacional.E has identified a total of 6 trees (from more than 100,000) that can be thought of as "pure Nacional.E." All other Nacional in Ecuador has been hybridized (deliberately or naturally) with introduced varieties in the last 100 years or so. According to Cacao Marañon there are no plans to export seeds, grafts, or seedlings out of Peru to Ecuador, which, to my mind, is a wasted opportunity, because chocolate made from Nacional.P has none, or virtually none, of the hallmark Arriba flavor.
While it may be technically true that Nacional.P is indeed "Pure Nacional" hanging the marketing of the cacao on this name can only cause some unneeded confusion, despite what the Marañon Chocolate folks think. People associate the Arriba descriptor with Nacional (even though, in most cases, this conflation is more marketing hype than reality, or is result of a mistaken belief that Nacional and Arriba are synonyms). Furthermore, there is at least a third Nacional in the region, the Cacao Nacional Boliviano, itself a genetically distinct variety according to USDA ARS. Motomayor identified a distinct genetic cluster he called Marañon, which does not apply to this cacao, increasing the potential for confusion in the marketplace.
From a research perspective, it would be very interesting to see what would happen if Nacional.P were to be planted in the Guayas River valley in Ecuador, the source of Nacional that exhibited the famous Arriba flavor. There are very few opportunities to truly understand the nature/nurture concept in agriculture and the true effects of terroir (in this instance, micronutrients in the soil) and their affect on flavor development. Nacional.P grown along the Marañon River in Peru does not exhibit the characteric Arriba flavor. If some where transplanted in Ecuador, would it? A very interesting question which, sadly, may never come about, leaving the chocolate world a much poorer place.
Another very interesting line of research would be to introduce Nacional.P into a breeding program in Ecuador to address the yield and disease resistance deficiencies of Nacional.E. Could Nacional.P be part of an answer to reducing the spread of CCN51? We may never know because of a (in my opinion misplaced) desire to very tightly control the ownership of Nacional.P.
What About The Chocolate Itself
Surprisingly, the taste of the chocolate itself was a secondary objective of the launch event on January 11th even though the chocolate is being touted as the best chocolate either Edward or Ziegler – and many others – have tasted. In all respects, the chocolate is classic Swiss chocolate as crafted by Felchlin. It is very reminiscent in texture to Cru Savuage, though the melt is not quite as delicate (I have described the melt on the Cru Sauvage as being more like dissolving than melting). The fat content is a tad on the high side, contributing to a buttery mouth feel and a very long, lingering finish. From an overall flavor profile perspective it fits between the Cru Sauvage (Bolivia) and the Cru Hacienda (Dominican Republic). The Cru Sauvage tends to be light and aromatic with the aromas in the top of the mouth and in the nose. The Cru Hacienda is all rich and dark and on the tongue and in the lower part of the mouth. The chocolate Felchlin made from the Marañon cacao fits comfortably in the middle of the mouth delivering nice rounded chocolate flavor that lingers for a very long time. It is a very pleasant chocolate with nothing challenging about it.
Is it the best chocolate in the world, as they – at least verbally – claim? That’s not for a cacao marketing company to decide. They can announce it, but the crowning really should be made by an independent body. For me, a best chocolate in the world would be one that I could not live without, and Chocolate Marañon’s interpretation, through Felchlin, does not rise to that level, for me.
Mark Christian of The C-Spot (www.c-spot.com) was a consultant to Marañon on the development of the chocolate gives it an 8.19 out of 10. Upala 82 from US startup Potomac gets an 8.39 and Xoconusco from Bonnat gets a 9.5. Oh, well. (Surprisingly, Mark makes a simple mistake on his website, identifying the origin of Marañon as Peru, where the origins of the other chocolates are the country of manufacture.
All that said – the project is a remarkable achievement and one that needs to be acknowledged for what it is, not hyped for what it is not.
The original full press release can be read by clicking here:
The Marañon Chocolate web site is at http://www.maranoncacao.com/
Thanks for posting this - very interesting!
Is it true that all of Pralus' origin cacao are grown in a plantation in Madagascar (obviously not the recent Chuao bar)? I think I heard this somewhere? It seems strange to me but if true would this not be a good terrior experiment. It would not be perfect though as a manufacturers processing will impart different results beyond the dried bean starting material. However, gross distinctions may be able to be made like in the case above where there is a lack of the 'Arriba' flavour.
This is Adam Pearson from Marañon Chocolate. I am Dan Pearson's son and Brian Horsley's brother. Clay, I really appreciate you taking the time to do the research that you've done. Your write-up is very good. Brian is in the midst of our second harvest season and my dad is swamped with the fancy food show. We've sold almost all of the chocolate we have available for this year. I'm the company accountant and so I am buried as well. I'll try my best to address a lot of what you've written here in the coming days.
One thing to keep in mind as you cover this story is that we really are a small family business. This is our first time ever working with chocolate. The main reason that we've been so careful and private is because we truly did not know what to expect. When you have renowned scientists telling you that you have this incredible discovery on your hands and really world class people telling you that its the best chocolate that they've ever tasted, taking it slow and being cautious is a must. The press blitz is really beyond anything we could have reasonably expected.
We are honest and ethical people and have come to appreciate the fine chocolate industry very much. We are committed to being responsible members of the chocolate society. We have just been overwhelmed and are trying to figure out the best way to handle everything. The good thing is that we have a great team and are very hard workers so we'll get everything figured out.
Clay, I'd love to hear your thought on the Moonstruck Tumbled Beans that Julian Rose makes.
More to come.
I have no reason to believe that you're anything but honest, ethical, and responsible. However, as you point out, you're new to the chocolate business and didn't know what you have. I don't think you've been given the wisest counsel and - as near as I can tell - no one employed by Maranon has much experience against which to evaluate that counsel.
I am confused - and the confusion starts with the company name, Maranon Chocolate and the address of the website, maranoncacao.com. Are you a chocolate company (I don't think so - you don't make chocolate) or are you a cacao company? I think you're a marketing company and, at least at the moment, the messages are not clear, at least not to me.
I find there are claims you make that are unsubstantiable and that reflect your inexperience about the world of chocolate. So I don't really understand why you're telling the story you're trying to tell the way you're telling it. I think you didn't cast your net wide enough to get opinions on the true value of what you may have. I say may have because I still don't know what you do have.
What I do know is that if you keep it locked up in a canyon in Peru the full value to the cacao and chocolate community worldwide will never be realized - and that would be a real shame.
As far as the Tumbled Beans are concerned. The interesting story there is not that the beans are uniform in size, but that differences in pigmentation cause differences in flavor due to fermentation, drying, and roasting. Thus, any given handful of beans may all taste very different. Also, they're not the first chocolate-covered beans I've tasted where the beans are covered with chocolate made from the same beans. That honor goes to REPSA at the Salon du Chocolat last October. I do have to say that I prefer the chocolate-covered wild beans of the Beni, produced entirely in-country in La Paz, Bolivia by Rainforest Exquisite Products. These are the wild beans used to make Felchlin’s Cru Sauvage and they are covered in chocolate made from the wild beans. In this case it is the lack of uniformity in size and small size of the beans (140-160/100gr) that contributes to very different roast profiles and therefore very different flavors in the beans. There is a brightness to them that I (and everyone who's tried them) finds truly fascinating. I just finished the last of my sample that I got when I was in Bolivia in November and the next ones won't be available until June at the earliest but I will be more than happy to share them with you when I get more.
As far as direction is concerned - I mention in my original writeup that there are amazing similarities between your story and the wild beans of the Beni; I would counsel you to reach out to Volker to extend the opinions you are getting about how to handle what you have. He has decades of experience working in-country that I think you will find invaluable.
Fascinating story that reminds me much of the Wollemi pine or more to home the super local variety of Davidsons plum.
It's also interesting that this variety seem to grow quite high up on the hillside equating presumably to tolerating much lower temperatures.
"The trees thrive at some of the highest altitudes ever reported for cacao, between 3,500 and 4,100 feet."
By my reckoning if thats 4100 ft it grows up to and 2000 ft is normal Cacao's maximum altitude that's an 4°C drop in temperature it can survive at.
Brian Horsley, International Business (Cajamarca, Peru)
Brian Horsley served on the Board of Directors for DiscoverHope from our inception in April 2006 until November 2009, with two years as Board President from 2006-2008. Brian is President (COO) of Sovereign Global Marketing (SGM), a Nevada-based company that serves as an import export international investment banking firm specializing in mining and energy with 5 years experience in Peru. Brian is from San Diego and works and resides in Cajamarca, Peru, guiding the operational development for SGM’s projects in Peru, including cacao cultivation in Northern Peru. Brian helps guide the work of DiscoverHope through his specializations of nonprofit program building and management, international business, and Peruvian culture.
Thanks for this interesting analysis.
When I went to see our partner in Ecuador in 2009, they showed us a tree with big green fruits and white beans as well, calling the plant Theobroma bicolor. I was told that it is not a cocoa species, but seeing pictures of the fruits they found in Peru I wonder whether there might be a connection.
Do you know anything about this? Unfortunately I do not have picture of cut beans.
By the way, the Nacional we buy from our partners does have fruity flavours as well it does not have any of the typical jasmin or floral flavours...And the fincas are arouund the spot that Motomayor, whom we met 2009 defines as the origin of the Nacional.
Certainly looks and sounds like Bicolor...a separate species in the Theobroma family:
Commonly referred to as Pataxte in central America. Also worth a read:
Yep, that definitely looks like Theobroma bicolor a sister species of cacao that is used in Central and South America. It goes by the names patashte (Aztec/Nahuatl), balamte (Mayan), cacao del tigre, cacao blanco, cacao del jaguar, and macambo in South America. The fruit is not as nice and sweet as cacao but it is mainly used for the seeds either grilled and eaten straight as nuts in S. America, or in drinks like Tejate in combination with cacao and other flavorings in Oaxaca, Mexico.
There are many other species of Theobroma we cover in our book chapter
that have minor uses. The most commonly used other species is cupuaçu, Theobroma grandiflorum, which is mainly used for its fragrant pulp in smoothies in Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru.
Nat Bletter, PhD