by Rowan Jacobsen
Photo and video by Alyssa D'Adamo
Here we are in Soconusco at last, that fertile coastal plain at the tail end of Mexico, not far from the Guatemala border, where the art of chocolate may well have begun. We’re walking a sizzling-hot field of cashew trees that looks like every other farmer’s field in Soconusco, but the pottery sherds littering the soil tell us otherwise. We’re with Ayax Moreno, Mexico’s best known archaeological illustrator, who was here in 1995 when these fields were exhumed to reveal Paso de la Amada, one of the oldest major sites in Mesoamerica.
We know this because the Aztecs considered Soconusco to possess the finest cacao in the world. They conquered it in the 1400s for that very reason. The deal was that the province of Soconusco had to send 200 cargas (about 5 million beans) to the Aztec capital every year, or there’d be trouble. When the Spanish took over, they kept the same deal: 5 million beans, every year.
For centuries, Soconusco remained Cacao Central. A survey of one Soconusco town in 1582 found that 83% of the households had cacao orchards, with an average of 343 trees per household. Soconusco still has a reputation for growing some of the best cacao in the world, but the market has shifted. Today, it’s in hot demand in neighboring Oaxaca, drinking-chocolate capital of the universe. (Mexico City’s handful of bean-to-bar makers also snap it up.) Only a tiny trickle makes it onto the international market. Ironically, due to local demand, what was once the most famous cacao in the world has become a well-kept secret.
What made that cacao so desirable, of course, was that it was Criollo: white-beaned, less bitter, deliciously nutty. Criollo probably developed here from earlier strains in Colombia and Venezuela as the people of Mesoamerica kept planting the palest, least-bitter seeds from their favorite trees in their ongoing quest for the ultimate cup of chocolate.
Part of it was cultural—the old farmers just liked their old varieties. “It would be a sin to cut down trees my great-grandfather planted,” one of them told us. Part of it was Oaxaca, which was hooked on Soconusco’s white beans and willing to pay well for them. But part of it was just smart farming. The new government strains were bred for success on nice, flat research stations whose conditions bore little resemblance to the hardscrabble realities of Soconusco hill farms, and the farmers knew it. As one experienced farmer in the valley of Chamulapita told us, “What works at their research station doesn’t work at my farm, 200 meters higher and on the other side of the mountain.” And the reason his trees DO work is because he and his family have been planting them from seed, generation after generation, as the cacao genetics constantly morphed to match the place.
One thing you immediately notice in Soconusco’s commercial farms is the prehistoric look of its cacao. If there was any doubt as to the uniqueness of the genetics, the morphology of the pods puts that to rest. The range is phenomenal, but what stands out is the number sporting the classic Criollo dinosaur-egg look: elongated pods, “lagardo” tails, patinated skin, and raised ridges, as if the five plates had been welded together. It just feels old.
But wait, that’s not the only exhibit in the museum. We encountered two other gems to stir the passions of any heirloom-cacao junkie. The first was INIFAP, Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry, Agriculture, and Livestock Research. Carlos Hugo Avendaño Arrazate directs its vaunted experimental cacao plot, which he calls a “showroom for farmers.” Every possible permutation of planting density, shading strategy, trellising technique, and varietal is on display, so a prospective farmer can simply walk around and see what might work on his farm. Then he can take a few cuttings of his favorite discovery and propagate them at home.
Fascinated by the genetic diversity of the plant, Moises collected widely through Chiapas, Tabasco, and Central America, planting his favorites at Finca la Rioja. Then he stopped. Somewhere around World War II, the orchard froze in time.
In the late 20th century, Moises divided the estate among his sons. Most of them had no interest in cacao and cut down the old trees, replacing them with coffee or sugarcane or whatever could give them the most bang for the buck. (One of Moises’ descendants, José Maria Pascacio, has revived the name Finca la Rioja for the part of the old estate that he inherited and replanted, and that cacao won a gold at the 2021 Cocoa of Excellence Awards, becoming the first Mexican cacao to do so since Clara Echeverria’s famed Finca la Joya ten years earlier.)
But one son, Anselmo, was as romantic about cacao as his father. He couldn’t bring himself to cut down the trees he’d grown up with. So he left them untouched, abandoned, a living time capsule. Even the fabrication room is frozen in time, filled with Lehmann mills and melangers from before World War II. (In the 1970s, the president of Lehmann actually showed up on the farm, offering to buy the machines back from Anselmo, for Lehmann’s own showroom. But Anselmo declined, and here they sit still.)
Now Anselmo’s grandson, Pablo Muguerza, is dedicating himself to reviving the orchard. Of the remaining 20 hectares, Pablo has restored about 10. He has no idea what varieties these centurions might belong to—there are no records—and he can’t afford to sequence their DNA, but it’s obvious by their crazy colors and shapes that they belong to a lost world that may exist nowhere but inside this walled garden. A delicious world, too—Pablo has his own boutique equipment, and his chocolate was some of the best we tasted in Mexico. But Pablo struggles to find the resources needed to continue the restoration of the ancient estate and to propagate the old trees. If there was ever a project just waiting for HCP to come along, this felt like the one.
We left Soconusco feeling like the whole place was a showroom for heirloom cacao culture. Not nearly as much cacao grows here as in the glory days—coffee, mangos, cattle ranches, and cities have all cut into the acreage—but its hills are still filled with smart farmers growing great varieties you won’t find elsewhere. This is how it should be. An educated market just up the road with a taste for those beans and a willingness to pay for them. And an emphasis on sustainability, continuity, and tradition. It was a great reminder that in the fight to preserve cacao culture, there’s still a lot worth preserving.
And that’s a wrap for Phase 1 of our trip. Thank you, Mexico! You were never dull, and always tasty. Next up: Guatemala—heartland of the Maya, and one of the rising stars of heirloom cacao.