The cocoa tree grows in the tropics; within a belt that stretches roughly 20° north and south of the equator. From Peru to Mexico, Madagascar to Nigeria, Fiji to the Philippines. The trees like temperatures within a narrow band between 21 and 25° C and they bloom and bear fruit at the same time, all year round although the harvest has two main peaks annually.
The thick skinned pods measuring 15 to 25 cm grow directly on the trunks. Their colour ranges from green to yellow, orange and red and they each contain between 20 and 50 beans nestling in sweet and succulent pulp.
The knowledge about the cocoa tree has made a huge leap in the last ten years. The sequencing of the genome of more than 1000 specimens proved that the plant which Carl von Linné named Theobroma cacao in 1753 is – in its current form – a multiple hybrid of about ten original varieties. The traditional classification into criollo, trinitario and forastero finally came out a cropper but it still serves as the most basic reference structure.
As a rule of thumb the cocoa grown in Central and South America, Madagascar, the Philippines and Vietnam are genetically more criollo and trinitario, while that grown in Africa – where 70% of the World‘s cocoa comes from – is almost exclusively forastero.
The cocoa population of today is genetically very rich due to the fact that the cocoa tree is a very promiscuous plant that happily crossbreeds with anyone of its genus. Striving to find the best balance of taste, yield and resistance to deseases, agronomers at hundreds of plant breeding stations around the world grow and test new hybrids of cocoa. It will not take long until GMO cocoa sees the light of day but you can rest assured that it will never find its way into Jordi‘s Chocolate.
The latest research
has found plenty of genetical evidence for the earlier notion that the richest, yet most vulnerable varieties of cocoa originated in three territories:
1) South Mexico, 2) the borderlands of today‘s Ecuador, Peru and Colombia and 3) the south-west of Venezuela. We can say that the cocoa from these places is genetically most criollo which means high content of theobromin and a rich palette of aromas and tastes. The other strains of cocoa come from Amazonia and since they were originally seen as alien, people started calling them strange: „forastero“. The forasteros are criollos‘ poorer cousins in terms of taste and aroma but they are more robust and give better yields.
The cocoa tree is prone to a whole range of deseases which are capable of wiping out whole farms‘ or sometimes even countries‘ population of trees as evidenced in Trinidad or more recently in the Brazilian state of Bahia. It was the devastation of cocoa trees in Trinidad in 1727 that gave the name to Trinitario – the third cocoa variety in the now obsolete clasification into three main strains. When the whole population of criollos in Trinidad mysteriously died overnigth, growers brought trees from Amazonia and crossed them with the few local trees that miraculously survived the blight. The new hybrid was named trinitarion after the island where it was born. And when diseases started spreading among the criollos of Venezuela in the middle of the 18th century, the growers – in an attempt to save them – brought a large number of seedlings to Trinidad, the great Mitchurinian work was complete.