Posts Tagged ‘Forastero’

The ChocolateDoctor’s Tracking Down the Source of Chocolate: Equatorial Guinea

Friday, August 9th, 2013
Ed Engoron, Co-Founder of Choclatique
Author of Ed Engoron’s Choclatique, Running Press, 2011

I have had four careers in the last 45 years….a producer for ABC-TV covering the war in Vietnam, an art director and director in the film industry, a restaurateur with over 350 establishments and the co-founder of Choclatique. I’ve shot great action films and been shot at. I have directed famous and popular movie stars and have been credited with producing one of the top ten worst movies in history. I’ve opened restaurants that have been spectacular successes and one which was a spectacular failure. The most fun I have had has been the development of the brand and the fantastic products we make at Choclatique.

Last month I spent several weeks in Equatorial Guinea which, up until the mid twentieth century, was a large exporter of cocoa beans. I was in search of discovering great chocolate on the Dark Continent (If you prepare the recipe for Sofitel’s Cold, Welcoming Chocolate Beverage you will see and taste exactly what I mean about great chocolate). The Spanish brought a cocoa culture to Spanish Guinea, now known as Equatorial Guinea, West Africa in the late 1700’s.

Equatorial Guinea is on the west coast of equatorial Africa, bordered by Cameroon to the north and Gabon to the south and east. Malabo, the capital, is exactly 3 degrees north of the equator (I proved this out with my trusty iPhone compass and GPS system). It has the perfect climate and just the right amount of rainfall to grow great cacao, the fruit from which chocolate is made. A tiny country, it is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. This includes the mainland (Río Muni), as well as three coastal islets (Corisco, Elobey Grande, and Elobey Chico) and two islands (Bioko and Annobóon). The larger of these is Bioko, formerly known as Fernando Po which is 25 miles off the coast of Cameroon. Mangrove swamps lie along the coast of the island. Río Muni is mainly tropical rain forest and is home to a variety of animals, including gorillas, snakes, chimpanzees, monkeys, leopards, elephants, and crocodiles.

Bioko was most important because of its cocoa plantations and proved to be one of Spain’s most profitable territories in Africa. When the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, the Spanish began to invest more in the development of Equatorial Guinea. The country experienced increasing prosperity with the aid of the Spanish government and the Catholic Church. Industry grew, and cocoa and timber contributed to a strong economy.

Independence was declared in 1968. With the departure of Spain the country was left in dire straits. Many of the plantations were deserted and reclaimed by the rain forest. Today the country is rebuilding and establishing a great degree of political and economic stability. With the discovery of oil and other valuable natural resources their efforts are noticeable. On Bioko, the majority of the population lives in the City of Malabo, which is Equatorial Guinea’s capital. The city is clean, and its older architecture exhibits Spanish influence while the new buildings resemble the skyline of a major American city. There are new roads being built and construction cranes throughout the city showcase the efforts of Turkish and Chinese contractors.

The main foods are cassava root, bananas, rice, papaya, mango and yams. People also hunt and fish for protein. Palm wine and malamba (an alcoholic drink made from sugarcane) are both mild and popular.

Before independence, Equatorial Guinea’s primary source of income was from Spanish-grown cocoa production. With their departure, production fell significantly leaving plantations to be reclaimed by the jungle. Over the last couple of weeks I hiked into the jungle to find these old plantations and see for myself what remained of these vast growing areas. I was pleasantly surprised to see many old heirloom plants had survived the neglect and lack of attended cultivation. The cacao I found is most likely Forastero or Criollo (only testing will tell for sure). I estimate that the trees are probably about 200 years old and may very will be derived from the ancient cacao plants that would have been found in ancient Aztec civilizations and shipped to the colony.

Like superb wine and premium olive oils, fine chocolates all carry a signature flavor. Their distinctive flavors start with the original ingredient… the cacao bean. Wine grapes vary by varietal, region of origin, harvesting methods and weather. So, too, do cacao beans with the additional complications caused by the remoteness of the growing area and the fermenting and drying environment. Sophisticated connoisseurs of chocolate claim they can identify the country of origin, cacao tree type and processing methods; and can detect whether a chocolate comprises beans from a single estate (“terroir”) or blends. I’m pretty good at tasting, but not that good.

Before the mapping of the cacao genus a couple of years ago it was thought that there were only three varieties of heirloom cacao: the Criollo, the Trinitario and the Forastero. This is now being rethought as testing is proving that there may be more varieties than originally thought. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) now has the technology to help identify and map the various plants around the world.

Grown mainly in Central America, the Criollo represents only 1% of world’s fine chocolate production. Some exceptionally rare Criollo is harvested only by dugout canoe deep in the Amazon rainforest. Its cacao is fine and sweet, with complex flavor notes. The Forastero, grown largely in West Africa and South America, comprises about 80 percent of world’s fine chocolate production and has a strong, bold taste. The Trinitario is a flavorful bean and contains qualities of both trees and is grown throughout the world, producing about five percent of world fine chocolate output.

The most exciting part of the venture which eclipsed most everything else was the national energy to make a better life for all of the people who live there. It is more than just the construction of new buildings and roads and the discovery of oil which pays for much of it. It is the people who were most giving and hospitable. With all that is going on in the world today it was great to be welcomed as an American and treated so well by everyone I met and worked with. I am looking forward to returning back later in the year.

Choclatique creates chocolate for connoisseurs and for people who just love great chocolate. Our award-winning truffles and bars demonstrate our attention to artistic presentation and flavor perfection. Every day, our chocolatiers craft each piece using the finest ingredients. We use our premium blends of dark, milk and white chocolate made from premium cacao beans from around the world. And we continually search for rare and emerging cacao plantations from which we can source. We use only the finest ingredients: fresh cream and butter; and the finest liqueurs, nuts, fruits and spices. The secret to our success is allowing the natural chocolate flavors to dominate our truffles. We don’t use artificial flavors or preservatives.

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Unwrapping the Chocolate Genome

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

— Ed Engoron, Co-Founder of Choclatique

Chocolate Bar MakerAfter more than 10 years of teamwork planning and two years of mapping genes, two separate research groups have announced the complete sequencing of the genomes of two of the major cacao tree varieties.

Cacao TreeMuch of the world’s chocolate comes from cocoa beans harvested from the Theobroma cacao tree. The Forastero variety—used mainly in the bulk of the world’s chocolate production, and Criollo—used for its exceptionally fine taste.

Unfortunately, almost all cacao trees are highly susceptible to disease and cacao growers are constantly fighting plant plagues and the disruption of the sources of supply.

Witch's Broom FungusBrazil’s cacao crop, which once dominated the world market, was been decimated by a fungal blight known as witch’s broom. The fungus probably co-evolved with the cacao tree in Amazonia. Once the domesticated trees were cultivated in fields of genetically similar plants, the fungus had a field day and spread uncontrollably.

So far, witch’s broom and its equally destructive cousin, frosty pod, have not spread to cacao trees in Africa, where 70 percent of the world’s cacao is now grown. The old world cacao fields are not disease-free, however. Other fungi, such as black pod, as well as viruses and insect plagues have also affected cocoa bean crops in Africa and now in the newer plantations in Southeast Asia.

Cocoa bean shortages resulting from these plagues cost farmers an estimated $700 million in losses each year and are of particular to concern to larger candy companies which account for more than three-quarters of all the chocolate products sold in the United States each year.

TreesTo help ensure the health of cacao trees all over the world, two years ago Mars and Hershey announced separate plans to fund the sequencing of the cacao tree genome. The group that received funds from Mars and the U.S. Department of Agriculture went after the Forastero genome while Hershey partnered with Penn State University and CIRAD, a French agency based in Paris that studies agricultural issues in developing countries, to work on the Criollo genome.

DNA StrandThe goal isn’t to produce genetically modified candy bars. Rather, by sequencing the cacao tree genome, geneticists are providing plant breeders all over the world with a powerful new tool known as marker-assisted selection (MAS) that can be used to accelerate the breeding process for disease resistance and other valuable traits like drought tolerance and even flavor and texture.

Having the cacao genome in hand could also provide a unique opportunity to study genetic interactions between pathogens and hosts. Since scientists already have the genomes of witches broom and frosty pod allowing them to find the genetic triggers underlying the infection, that could be a very useful weapon in fighting disease.

Genetic SequenceHowever, even with these advancements, there is much work that remains to be done. The next step, identifying molecular markers, is a complicated and painstaking process. Sequencing is the easy part. Assembling the genome and identifying the markers is really the art form. It’s kind of like assembling a 3-dimensional jigsaw puzzle—one for each of the 10 chromosomes in the cacao genome, each comprised of 40 million puzzle pieces.

ScientistsIn the end, a team of 60 scientists working at 20 different institutes in six different countries were able to assemble 76 percent of the Criollo genome and identify 96 percent of the genes. The Forastero genome project met with even greater success, with 92 percent of the genome assembled, including 35,000 genes.

While the two simultaneous projects might recall the infamous race between Celera Genomics and the publicly financed Human Genome Project to sequence the human genome, both cacao genome groups compliment each other for providing the opportunity to compare the two closely related Forastero and Criollo varieties.

Pouring LiquidThe Forastero genome recently became available online and the Criollo sequence will be posted on the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website, also home to the human genome.

Both groups intend to continue perfecting their respective sequences, while moving into the next stage of translating the roughly 420 million-unit DNA sequences into heartier cacao plants around the world.

Cacao GrowerIt’s not only about helping chocolate manufacturers make better products; it should also help farmers create a more reliable crop that can be grown in an environmentally sustainable way.

That’s great news for 3.5 million substance farmers who depend on growing cacao for a living, and for chocolate-loving people who can look forward to enjoying great chocolate for years to come.

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