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.