Connoisseurs who take chocolate as seriously as sommeliers study wine are challenging the widespread use of an inferior cocoa pushed by the US government in its war against drugs in Peru, considered by many to be the birthplace of cocoa.
The US Agency for International Development, or USAID, introduced the high-yielding, but acidic-tasting CCN-51 cocoa hybrid to Peru in 2002 to offer farmers an alternative to planting coca — the key ingredient in cocaine.
The program has had some success, but chocolate makers are encouraging farmers to instead cultivate smaller amounts of rare, native cocoa that fetches higher prices from buyers who value complex and subtle flavors and judge chocolate by the personality of its cocoa, like the nose of a fine wine.
“I don’t understand why USAID is here, in a country so rich in diversity, where everything is virgin. What need is there to introduce new varieties?” said Mariella Balbi, owner of the tiny firm Guanni Chocolates, which sells in California and in Lima.
She sells boxes of 12 dark chocolate truffles made from Peru’s native white cocoa and filled with local ingredients like pisco brandy and Amazonian fruits for US$40.
USAID says it has a foreign policy mandate to curb coca production by encouraging alternative cash crops, not to cater to gourmets. However, it also says it may be open to commercializing native varieties in the future and it is sponsoring a contest to encourage farmers to cultivate more native cocoa.
“We want to help Peru become one of the world’s leading specialty cocoa producers,” said Loren Stoddard, director of alternative development at USAID in Peru.
Specialty cocoa can refer to organic, fair-trade or native cocoa. Gourmets say nothing makes better chocolate than native cocoa.
Building on a culinary and economic boom in Peru, startup chocolate makers are holding tastings to highlight accents ranging from nutty to floral in chocolate made from cocoa native to distinct microclimates, altitudes and latitudes.
They say Peru will never become a global bulk cocoa supplier like the Ivory Coast, so they instead want it to be the main cocoa source for high-end chocolate makers.
“USAID did a fine job developing an alternative crop with CCN-51, but times change. What people want changes,” said pastry chef Astrid Gutsche, wife of Peruvian food icon Gaston Acurio. “This idea of native cocoa is quite new and I believe it’s the future for Peru. We have something that no one else has.”
Gutsche hopes to promote Peruvian chocolate the way her husband, who owns restaurants on several continents, helped to introduce Peruvian cuisine to the world. She has traveled to remote jungle areas hoping to convince farmers to find and cultivate naturally growing cocoa varieties instead of CCN-51.
It can be a tough sell. Peru and its neighbor Colombia are the world’s biggest cocaine producers and when farmers do abandon coca planting, they usually choose the highest-yielding alternative crops.
CCN-51 cocoa, developed in Ecuador in the 1960s and planted throughout Africa to supply makers of mass-produced chocolate, grows faster and yields more than most native varieties.
“There is a lot of pressure to plant CCN-51 from institutions,” said Juan Rojas, who leads a farmer’s cooperative in the northwest region of Piura that grows native white cocoa.