Article by Rowan Jacobsen
Images by Alyssa D’Adamo
What do we mean when we say something is “wild”? To most of us, something is wild if it’s untamed, uncivilized, still living in an area with minimal human influence, and thus a good representative of how things used to be before people remade the world to their own tastes.
But that’s not what we mean when we talk about wild criollo, one of the most prized cacaos in the world. In fact, we kind of mean the opposite. For centuries, criollo was the most civilized of all cacaos. For thousands of years, in its slow journey from South America to Central America, it was transformed by people who kept planting the palest seeds, because those seeds had fewer of the polyphenol compounds that give cacao its purple color and its bitter and astringent qualities.
By the time Maya civilization brought chocolate to its cultural heights, criollo was one of the most refined crops in the world. And it had the narrow genetic profile to prove it. It was more Siamese cat than jaguar.
And we all know what happened next. The Spanish arrived, criollo cacao cultivation expanded, first in Mesoamerica and then around the planet, and soon diseases were decimating it both abroad and in its homeland. Then came industrial agriculture and the introduction of new varieties and selected hybrids designed to resist disease and improve yields (at the expense of flavor).
The result was that what we call criollo today is not the same as the criollo revered in Mesoamerica before the 1700s. Modern criollos are a mix between ancient criollo and other introduced cacaos. Cacao trees cross-pollinate, so even the seeds of a “pure” criollo will contain a mixture of genes from the mother tree and from other cacao trees in the vicinity that provide the pollen.
These remnant populations are the genetic motherlodes, the direct links to chocolate’s heyday, the only true taste of what it was like way back when. That makes them incredibly important for chocolate’s future, as both breeding stock and inspiration. If you can find them.
That, of course, was one of HCP’s primary goals on its Guatemala journey, a goal that gains urgency as the last forests in Central America get cleared, both legally and illegally, and the cacao goes with them. Sometimes it can feel like a hopeless battle, but we can now say that our hopes are much higher than they were a few weeks ago. This is one of those rare cases where results easily exceeded our expectations.
It all started with Erick Ac’s groundwork. Erick sent out his feelers across the country, pinpointing two communities where wild criollo could make a stand, and where HCP support could make the difference. The first is Santa María Tzejá, a Mayan village in the tropical rainforest near the Mexican border that was only settled in 1970 (by Mayans fleeing persecution by the Guatemalan ruling class). Before that, the area probably hadn’t been occupied since the times of the ancient Maya—which makes it just the kind of place where you’d hope ancient criollo might still be found.
And it was! Last year, Erick’s brother Luis taught a training workshop for fine-cacao farming to cacao growers in the Santa María Tzejá region. Luis preached the gospel of criollo, and after the workshop, a farmer named Eduardo Juarez contacted Erick and said he thought he might have some wild criollo trees near him.
The search for wild criollo is a bit like the search for Bigfoot. Most of the sightings don’t pan out. Many farmers in Guatemala refer to any cacao planted from seed as “criollo,” so Erick has learned to take all leads with a grain of salt. But Eduardo said that no one he knew had planted the trees, and that the pods were very small. That was enough to get Erick’s attention, so when the HCP gave him the opportunity to check out these kinds of leads, Eduardo’s name was near the top of his list.
The day got even better. At other spots in the forest, they found a second wild phenotype, with larger pods, and then a third, with red pods and white seeds. The trees were growing in deep shade, which was impressive, but Erick thinks a little less shade and a dash of fertilizer could make a huge improvement in pod production.
It was hard to tell who was more excited, Erick or Eduardo. Santa María Tzejá was a goldmine of ancient criollo genetics, and Eduardo said that other farmers in neighboring villages had told him they knew of similar trees in their woods. Erick plans on checking those out on his next visit.
For now, they germinated some seeds from the pods, with the goal of starting a clonal garden, and they grafted 30 trees with the budwood they collected. If all goes well, in two years they should have enough production to make some test batches of chocolate.
In the meantime, the main goal is to make sure none of the wild trees get cut down. Last year, the electric company tried to clear a swath of forest where some of the cacao trees were growing, but Eduardo stopped them. “We need more farmers like this!” Erick says.
Jacob had learned of this cacao a few years ago, when he came to check out Uaxactún because of its participation in a project meant to find ways for remote communities to live sustainably off a protected area. That meant finding “non-timber forest products” that could generate income, such as honey, allspice, chicle (for chewing gum), and xaté, a leaf used for floral arrangements. But cacao could quickly become the heart of the program.
That all started about 60 years ago, when the father of Don Chico Pop noticed two wild cacao trees in the forest where he lived, growing near some ancient Maya ruins. He used to pick the pods and use the pulp and seeds at home. Don Chico was 13 at the time, and ever since, he has been stewarding the trees. A few years ago, he began planting seeds from them. He and his family have now planted about 3,500.
Now, a month later, the HCP team was thrilled to find these beans awaiting us. They smelled great. Perhaps enough for an HCP micro-sample? At the very least, it’s enough to make a little chocolate and do a little analysis. So we’ll soon know a lot more about the genetics and flavor of this emissary from chocolate’s golden period.
Next steps: Erick will be teaching the Uaxactún community how to graft, how to establish a nursery and clonal garden, and how to cultivate new orchards.
For Jacob Marlin, this Uaxactún experience couldn’t have been a better example of why HCP decided to become more proactive in its mission. “These discovery activities are critical!” he says. “No one else is doing this!” Sure, it would be easier to simply assess samples as they are submitted, but then we’re almost sure to miss the most endangered and interesting ones of all. “We have to find these really fine-flavor cacaos before they’re lost,” he says. “If we just wait for the occasional sample to come in, we get a couple here and there, but if we’re actively out there like this, we’re gonna get dozens.”
So expect HCP to stay actively out there, country by country. One essential thing we learned on these first trips is that there’s still time. There’s still a lot of fascinating, forgotten cacao out there to be discovered. But we’re in the mission-critical period, as forests fall and farms turn over. So please keep checking back here for more updates, as we get to know the cacaos from Mexico and Guatemala and begin to move forward on future trips.
And please spread the word. Heirloom cacao will only be preserved if people fall in love with it. Fortunately, that’s usually the easy part.