I am recently back from 3 months in Nicaragua and southern Mexico, my secondary goal being to understand more about cacao, and make better chocolate. In the past 5 years I've been trucking around Nicaraguan cacao farms, and making chocolate-- only dark, and uncontaminated by ingredients other than sugar, fat and occasionally vanilla.
My science is practical but I love the harder stuff too. I'm interested in the basics and would like to venture what I have learned so far. Please feel free to correct or add to this.
Part 1) Fermentation vs Non-Fermentation-- to my understanding, the Olmecs and Mayas fermented their cacao; so it has a basis in tradition, and likely some reason for it. For me the reason is simple: I've made delicious chocolate (according to all my friends, and me) from fermented beans; and using the same process made chocolate from Unfermented beans that was absolutely inedible, acid, acrid, sour, I'm not sure how to describe it.
In Nicaragua, about half the cacao grown is Fermented, which fetches about a U$.40/lb bonus. Nearly all fermented cacao is exported. Big time European chocobiz will not fool with unfermented, for very good reason in my opinion. The other half of Nica cacao is unfermented and sold only on the national market.
In Mexico, the birthplace of proud chocolate tradition, almost all cacao is NOT fermented. And yet it was routinely fermented up until 40? 50? Years ago, I'm not sure.
The reason they quit fermenting there is doubtless that it is less work. And certainly today there is no premium offered for fermented cacao in Mexico. Since the Mexican national market abosrbs all production, no need for it.
So how do the local Nicas and Mexis make it edible? I have observed closely, several times, twice with a laser thermometer (it was not actually necessary) to learn, and confirm that they roast it to the point of NEARLY BURNING it. They get away with it for the simple fact that all the cacao served in these countries is served as a Chocolate Drink. These drinks are diluted with additives such as cinnamon, milk, other spices and usually lots of sugar. The near-burn allows a lot of very simple chocolate taste from very little prime material.
When you look at the little chocolate balls these folks make (made for drink, but sometimes chewed by choco-starved gringos), you can see by color comparison with my chocolate that the color is way darker. And of course the taste, burnt, it makes me weep.
Fermentation is done on the farm, and at least two in Nicaragua will stick in their thermometers to show you it is really fermenting, usually between 130 and 140F. Ritter (german), the main buyer in the north specifies 8 days of ferment, passing thru the classical 3 boxes. I have made very tasty chocolate out of this but I think it is another case that 8 day ferment tries to maximize the Quantity of taste.
Of course I'd love to try someones raw unfermented chocolate, and ready to be amazed at their art if it can be made to taste good.
Part 2-- Varieties and flavors: this is my real interest. I have seen on this site that folks are trying to divvy up the obsolete triad of Criollo, Forestero and Trinitario into 10 different types.
I can only speak for Nicaragua, a few guesses therefrom. There are a number of different types of cacao, bred over the centuries but-- up until recently-- we assume they are all based on the Criollo type. Lagarto, Papayon, Manzana, Amelonado, the more recent ones (within the last few centuries). I assume they are all criollo types, with who-knows-what other genes mixed in. But the growers have a sense, and some decent agreement about the really old types.
First the most common is the cacao Indio, also sometimes called Criollo (or so-called Criollo). This is still somewhat common but under attack by the much heralded higher producing Trinitario Acriollizado. Much field grafting going on. This was shown to me in Mexico as the old stuff, Criollo, with a pink interior, not purple. This is a smallish, yellow, rounded pod (not so round as the Amelonado), with good resistance to the dread disease Monilia, and also decently productive.
In Nicaragua, I dealt with farmers who were rather more sophisticated and said this may be an old type but the real Criollo is somewhat bigger (also yellow) and has a purple seed interior. Which they showed me. What the Mexicans call Criollo is the Indio in Nicaragua. Same stuff, different name.
But the one they think is surely old is the White Cacao, whose young leaves are light green, not reddish like all the others. And of course the seeds are white on the inside.
Most farmers have had no incentive to separate the different varieties. I've had the pleasure of making chocolate of the Indio and it is very different than the mixed cacao universally sold, and utterly delicious, smooth tasting, could almost be mistaken for a milk chocolate.
I'm looking forward to trying the others, which should be in my grasp by next harvest.
Love to hear more about what are really the ancient and original cacaos, if anyone knows.
Meanwhile, an Opportunity: We have identified three sites in Nicaragua with very old or interesting types of cacao. There are interested people at these sites, willing to assisit and abet a Biologist who would like to study any and all biological aspects of cacao, in its native habitat. Obviously such a Biologist must have interest and some plan, perhaps as part of some higher educational program.
J Sandy Hepler, Whitleyville, TN