Sun, Apr 29, 2012 - Page 11 News List

US anti-cocaine push embitters Peru chocolate makers

Peruvian gourmets see a strong future in native cocoa as they seek to make the country the main cocoa source for high-end chocolate makers — if they can overcome the popular US-promoted CCN-51 hybrid

By Caroline Stauffer  /  Reuters, LIMA

CCN-51 is considered a “bulk” rather than “fine-flavor” cocoa by the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) and it is more resistant to the witches’ broom disease that slashed output in neighboring Brazil, once the world’s No. 2 cocoa producer.

Rojas says Piura’s native white cocoa yields one-third less per hectare than CCN-51, but that some European chocolate makers are buying it for US$4,000 per tonne. Bulk cocoa fetches about US$2,300 per tonne on the New York futures market.

Luxury chocolate makers value Piura cocoa’s soft white flesh for its earthy, slightly nutty traces. They say it does not have the acidic taste often found in chocolate made from CCN-51.

Proponents of native cocoa believe prices paid to farmers will further increase as the market develops, citing a growing demand for single-origin foods at US stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

The market for native cocoa has been discussed in the world’s elite chocolate circles as a way to craft richer, more diverse treats, while protecting rare cocoa varieties in danger of extinction.

“We want to come up with a system in which we actually link the chocolate bar directly with the origin for commercial purposes,” said Moises Gomez-Miranda, a project manager at ICCO.

The London-based organization says the demand for fine flavor cocoa has started to grow very rapidly.

Native cocoa from Venezuela’s famed Chuao region can fetch up to US$10,000 per tonne though the country’s overall cocoa production has fallen in recent years due to economic turmoil.

Peru is especially interesting for native cocoa fans because new varieties are still being identified in its part of the Amazon rainforest, where Spanish conquistadores “found” the crop five centuries ago.

“The Peruvian Amazon is the cradle of cocoa and it’s home to very important genetic clusters,” said Maricel Presilla, a US-based food historian and author of The New Taste of Chocolate.

“Now that they have been identified genetically it is time to propagate, time to grow them. Money has to be placed into research expeditions and germ plasm banks,” she said.

No one knows how many types of cocoa lurk in Peru’s mountains and jungles, but two Americans recently stumbled on one genetic variety that was thought to be extinct. Now, Swiss chocolate makers produce bars out of Maranon’s Pure Nacional cocoa with equipment developed in the 1800s, when Nacional was one of the world’s most coveted cocoas.

Moonstruck Chocolate, a company in Oregon, sells packs of 12 chocolate bars made with 68 percent Maranon cocoa for US$144. A 36-pack box of Hershey’s bars, in comparison, sells for US$19.95.

Critics, however, say farmers are not yet paid high enough prices for native cocoa to justify the lower output. Few people are willing to pay US$12 for a chocolate bar or care to pinpoint the exact location of its ingredients, they say.

“I just got back from Europe — organic and fair trade are what’s in demand. They aren’t fixated on type, it could be CCN-51, it could be something else,” said Rolando Herrera, president of APPCACOA, Peru’s largest cooperative of cocoa growers and a USAID partner.

After the Dominican Republic, Peru says it is the world’s No. 2 exporter of organic cocoa, which is worth between US$100 and US$300 more per tonne than bulk cocoa according to the ICCO. Rare native types, like Peru’s Maranon Pure Nacional or Venezuela’s Chuao, are worth much more.

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