by Rowan Jacobsen
Images & Video: Alyssa D'Adamo of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund
Greetings from La Chontalpa, the cocoa-coated lowlands near Tabasco’s Caribbean coast, where it’s 99 in the shade, 105 in the sun, and getting into a car is like stepping into a microwave. Actually, two of our vehicles have already expired under the thermal assault. All worth it, because this is the biggest cache of cacao in Mexico.
The state of Tabasco is kind of like the Louisiana of Mexico: A hot, steamy swamp on the Gulf of Mexico steeped in strong local traditions, and catapulted out of poverty in the late 20th century by a sudden infusion of wealth from the oil industry. In Louisiana, it’s the seafood industry that exists awkwardly side-by-side with the oil industry. In Tabasco, it’s cacao.
Cacao goes all the way back in Tabasco. When the Spanish annexed Tenochtitlán in 1521 and pulled the rope on the supply chains to see where the Aztecs were tapping the gushers of cacao beans flowing into the city, it led to two places: Soconusco and “La Chontalpa."
Soconusco was more famous at the time, but today Tabasco dominates. A few years ago, The Chocolate Life’s Clay Gordon estimated that Tabasco produced 18,000 tons of cacao per year, Chiapas 4,500 tons. Today, HCP’s cacao-wrangler in Mexico, Alejandro Escriche, guesses that Tabasco supplies two-thirds of Mexico’s production, Chiapas the other third. (With Oaxaca kicking in a rounding-error’s worth of strange strains, all consumed locally.)
For centuries, the cacao in Tabasco was a mix of varieties descended from ancient times. Grafting was unknown. Everyone planted seeds from their favorite trees, every tree was different, the trees cross-pollinated, and a distinctive range of landraces took hold in the Chontalpa. Although Chontalpa cacao had a terrible year in 2023, thanks to a double-whammy of monilia infection and wacky weather, Alejandro will be collecting several different samples of classic Chontalpa field blends for heirloom consideration.
But that’s not our main story today. That involves another cacaotero, as they’re called here, named Carlos Echeverria. As you’d expect from a cacao region that predates the Conquest, La Chontalpa was traditionally a mix of Criollo strains, many of which produced white beans with low bitterness and buttery flavors. Such beans are known as almendra blanca, and they have been prized for centuries.
In the 1940s, Carlos Echeverria inherited an abandoned farm scattered with overgrown cacao trees. Many were forms of almendra blanca. Carlos began experimenting, selecting his favorites for propagation, searching for the perfect combination of flavor and vigor, and also doing something unheard of in Tabasco: grafting the trees onto better rootstock to improve their yield. Eventually, he landed on a tree that knocked it out of the park on both flavor and productivity and began cloning it, the first true white-beaned varietal. He named it Carmelo.
And prices exploded. $10 a pound for Carmelo beans. Then $20. A kind of tulip mania took hold. Everyone in the region wanted to plant Carmelo trees and get in on the game. Clara spread the wealth, selling trees as well as beans, and La Chontalpa hitched its wagon to Carmelo.
And then it all came crashing down. The other farmers in Tabasco weren’t used to working with grafted varieties, which need more TLC than trees planted from seed (pie franco in the local parlance, a term borrowed from the wine industry that means “free feet”). Worse, their Carmelo didn’t taste like Finca La Joya’s. This would not have surprised anyone in the wine business. It wasn’t just the genetics of the trees. It was the terroir of the place. It was the soil, the landscape, Clara’s management and fermentation skills.
It was also supply and demand. Soon, there was a glut of Carmelo on the market, most of it not very good. The bubble burst. Prices tanked. And when monilia hit Tabasco like a hurricane in 2005, the Carmelo craze came crashing down.
The good times didn’t even last at Finca La Joya. Clara died in 2013, the family squabbled over the ranch, and a few years ago Rancho La Joya was abandoned. We stood outside its locked gate and flew a drone over the overgrown ruins, a source of profound heartache to Clara’s daughter, Rossanna Hernandez Echeverria, who lives a kilometer away and has started her own young orchard of almendra blanca to continue her mother’s legacy.
It’s still a work in progress, but things are looking promising. Yields have bounced from 1.2 tons in 2019 to just half that in 2020 and 2021, before bouncing back to well over a ton in 2022 and another good year in 2023, as Alma got her farm management dialed in.
Fermentation, too. “When I started,” Alma says, “I couldn't make any connection between what was a good smell in the beans and what was a bad one. For me, everything was bad, because it smelled like vinegar!” But after tasting enough of the chocolate, she began using a lighter hand with fermentation, which suits such gentle beans, and today her beans have brought Carmelo’s reputation right back to its 1990s peak. They command some of the highest prices in the world, and they are snapped up by Mexico’s handful of bean-to-bar chocolate makers.
That’s the unexpected takeaway from Tabasco as we hop another series of buses and trucks for the Lacandon Jungle, the most pristine and remote rainforest in North America, where we hope to get insights into the earliest communities to cultivate cacao in North America—and maybe even get a few glimpses of the feral descendants of those efforts. Wish us luck, and please send more mosquito repellant if you can.
written by Rowan Jacobsen
Meet Dionisia Garcia Juárez, a Chinantec woman who lives in the town of San Felipe de Léon, tucked deep into a fold of the Chinantla, a vertiginous corner of northeastern Oaxaca. She’s a spry 55, still climbing the steep paths of her farmstead in a traditional huipil, the woven tunic of the peoples of southern Mexico that captures the history and beliefs of her ancestors in embroidered symbols.
The Chinantec people have lived here since forever, and they’ve cultivated cacao approximately that long. They self-governed for centuries until the Aztecs rolled into town around 1455, happily allied with the Spaniards in the 1520s to boot their oppressors, and then of course wound up rebelling against the Spanish a decade later.
The valleys and slopes of the Chinantla are so steep that the Chinantec developed a unique language that includes a variety of sharp whistles that can be used to convey complex information from one ridge to another. The language has been studied extensively by anthropologists, and there are still about 100,000 Chinantec speakers, but it’s mostly just the old people these days who know how to make and interpret the whistles. The kids use cell phones.
San Felipe de Léon has just enough altitude to exist in that rare band where both coffee and cacao can thrive. Any lower and its too hot for good coffee; any higher is too cool for cacao. The people of San Felipe de Léon grow both in a delicate dance. The coffee is new, but the cacao is a constant. “When I was a kid,” says Dionisia, “these mountains were covered in cacao. We just treated it like any other fruit.” They used it in their drinks, especially atole and pozol, and sold anything extra to coyotes—middlemen who are like traveling pawn shops, rolling into town with a truck and a roll of cash and buying anything farmers are desperate to sell at extremely low prices. Coyotes are always a last resort, but if you’re a farmer without the means to haul your cacao to a distant city where you might get a better price, they can be better than nothing.
But to earn the higher price paid by both domestic and international bean-to-bar customers, good fermentation is essential, and that’s the next step. Alejandro Zamorano, HCP’s lead on this project, is kick-starting the first fermentation fenter in San Felipe De Leon, with support from HCP. Soon quality Chinantla cacao will be finding its way into craft chocolate for the first time.
Alejandro surveyed the trees with barely contained fervor. “Look at the pale color of the new leaves!” he shouted, snapping photos. “You can tell it’s white-beaned.” The genetic mutation that drained the color from Criollo beans did the same to its leaves. These trees were the real deal, a living chunk of Oaxacan history.
And there was another important piece of Oaxacan history and culture growing all over those hillsides, mixed in with the cacao and coffee: pataxte, aka Theobroma bicolor, or white cacao. Pataxte is cacao’s less flashy sibling, and it has always played a supporting role in Oaxaca’s traditional beverage culture. Its white beans have less fat than cacao, a milder taste, and they are exceptionally good at producing a froth
Now pataxte is having a moment. Next-gen Oaxacan eateries are featuring it more prominently. Leading the way is Olga Cabrera’s remarkable Tierra del Sol, which uses it in a sublime white mole, as well as in a veriety of mixed-cacao drinks and pastries.
A trickle of pataxte is even making its way to the wider world through exporters like Alejandro, who pays Dionisia $16 a kilo for all the pataxte she can get her hands on. (He buys her cacao and coffee, too.) That makes it more expensive than virtually any cacao in the world, but it’s necessary to cover the meager yields and difficulty separating the beans from the pods. Alejandro had never seen a whole hillside of his newest obsession before, and he gaxed around in astonishment. Most of the pataxte in the world is coming from this one valley.
Dionisia handed us small white disks of pure pataxte chocolate to try, containing nothing but pataxte and sugar. It was rich, creamy, mild, and nutty, like peanut-butter fudge. It didn’t taste remotely like chocolate, but we could immediately comprehend why people have been mixing the two together for centuries. They are natural partners. Dionisia likes to mix 1/4 pataxte into her drinking chocolate, along with sugar and a touch of cinnamon.