by Rowan Jacobsen
Images by Alyssa D'Adamo of the HCP
Hello, heirloom cacao lovers! Greetings from Mexico City. HCP is here with Alejandro Zamorano Escriche, the founder of Revival Cacao, in search of lost, overlooked, underappreciated, or simply impossible-to-get-your-hands-on cacao varietals that might make good candidates for future heirloom designation. It’s part of HCP’s mission to Discover, Identify, and Preserve new heirloom cacaos. While the Identify and Preserve pieces of the mission have been happening for years, everything is finally in place to proactively Discover heirloom cacaos not yet on anyone’s radar and work with the producers to usher them into the world of fine cacao, and we couldn’t be more excited. First up, Mexico and Guatemala!
Photo © Alyssa D'Adamo of the HCP
Why start here? Well, in a sense, it all started here. Just a stone’s throw away, the Aztec court first introduced the Spanish to chocolate 500 years ago. The Aztecs were getting it all from the Maya and other indigenous groups in what are now Guatemala and the southern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas. (They even conquered Soconusco specifically to get ahold of its cacao, considered the finest in the world at the time.) Millions of beans were sent to the Aztec capital as tribute each year. The Spanish, of course, took over this protection racket from the Aztecs and expanded it, supplying cacao to the world (still on the backs of indigenous farmers) for centuries.
So the Maya heartlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala had the oldest unbroken cacao traditions in the world, and they never lost them. You’d think this would make the region the epicenter of heirloom cacao. And according to Alejandro, who will be HCP’s pointman for this expedition—it is! In terms of weird and delicious cacaos grown in the middle of nowhere by people who have been at it for centuries, Mexico is the motherlode.
Yet ironically, according to Alejandro, very few of these desirable cacaos ever make it into a chocolate bar or leave the country. Mexico is the drinking-chocolate capital of the universe—another unbroken tradition—and virtually every bean produced domestically is also consumed domestically.
That sounds like a good thing, but all is not well in the world of Mexican cacao. Mexico may be the drinking-chocolate capital of the universe, but that doesn’t make it the cacao-appreciation capital of the universe. The tradition here is to drink your chocolate so sweet that any fine points of flavor are hopelessly lost, so any especially delicious beans (and we are talking about the epicenter of criollo here) go for the same low price as any other beans.
In such an environment, why would these cacaos still exist? Thanks to some combination of inertia, nostalgia, and love, says Alejandro. The old farmers still growing these quirky old varieties have known these trees their whole lives. Sometimes the trees predate the farmers. No, they’re not commercially viable—at least at current prices—but who cares? Neither is your old farmdog, but that’s no reason to get rid of him. He’s part of the family.
Sounds like a job for HCP! And the timing is good. Although Mexico has barely had a culture of bean-to-bar chocolate, and its cacao farmers have had almost no encouragement to maintain their heirloom varieties, things are starting to change. Here in Mexico City, you can sense the first signs of revolution, a nascent culture of chocolate adoration that could awaken this sleeping giant.
Let’s start with Alejandro, who launched his company, Revival Cacao, six years ago to give these cacaos the rapt attention they deserve—to return Mexico to its rightful position at the top of the cacao pyramid. He’s tracked down exceptional beans and farmers across Tabasco, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, and he supplies those beans to the rare bean-to-bar maker in Mexico, such as Cuna de Piedra. He’s even begun to export to the United States.
Alejandro feels that many of these farms contain varieties that have everything it takes to achieve heirloom status, and he’s thrilled that HCP is taking a look. He’ll be our pointman in Mexico, collecting samples from dozens of farms, as well as numerous wild areas, and submitting them for heirloom consideration. We’ll be tagging along, so expect to hear much more about that in the coming days.
And along the way, you’ll hear about many other sparks of light in Mexico’s cacao awakening, some of which are flaring up right here in Mexico City. Let’s start with the Museum of Chocolate, aka MuCho. Launched in an elegant century-old building in Mexico’s historic district by architect Ana Rita García-Lascuraín, MuCho holds an extraordinary display of artifacts and dioramas covering both Mexico’s prehistoric and post-Conquest chocolate past, but it’s also remarkably hands-on. Visitors can grind cacao on a metate, as it’s been done for millennia, and they can sample MuCho’s own bean-to-bar chocolate, handmade on site using fine-flavor cacao from Mexican producers. Every day, hundreds of people walk out of MuCho’s doors with a new understanding of the heights Mexican chocolate once had—and could have again.
And for an even better sense of that future, meet the young couple making it happen just a few blocks away at La Rifa, Mexico City’s best chocolateria. Mónica Lozano and Daniel Reza have devoted themselves to working directly with small-scale cacao farmers in Tabasco and Chiapas, sourcing multiple varieties of criollo—including several different white cacaos—and turning them into half a dozen single-variety bars. They’ll even make you a super-frothy, 100% unsweetened, incredibly powerful drinking chocolate— possibly a first in Mexico City!
But as encouraging as these examples are, they are few and far between. These cacaos and regions are still virtually unknown to the greater chocolate world. So there’s work to be done. Something very special—something that couldn’t be more fundamental to chocolate’s history and identity—still exists in the famed regions of Chontalpa and Soconusco, but how much longer it can survive without outside help is anyone’s guess. The farmers certainly aren’t getting any younger. As Alejandro says, “It’s now or never.”
So here we go. We’re headed to Oaxaca City, the heart of Mexico’s cacao traditions, both ancient and contemporary, to get a grounding in those traditions. What do they mean to Mexican culture, what role do they have in contemporary Oaxacan life, and what can HCP do to help support that cacao culture and allow it to flourish in the modern world? After that, some hellacious roads and the deep jungle await. Wish us luck, and please follow along!