Criollo, a danger to us all?

Opinions can get rather heated in the world of fine chocolate. Any subject that stirs a great deal of passion in its followers, and engages us in an exploration of its detail and finesse, is likely to lead to different camps and strong viewpoints. Sometimes this can be good natured, and sometimes things can get rather too personal.

I find it hard to think of a clearer example of this than a recent post on the website of Samanatha Madell, also know as forum member oz_choc. Samatha’s really got it in for chocolate author and UK Academy of Chocolate founder member Chloé Doutre-Rousell. In a rather monumental piece of well over 10,000 words, Samantha attacks the accuracy of Chloé’s book ‘The Chocolate Connoisseur’ and concludes that Chloé’s preference for criollo over forastero has “damaged her business”.

‘Sword of truth’

I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of Samantha’s analysis here, nor am I going to defend the book or Chloé – she’s quite capable of doing that herself if required. Though I suspect Chloé is much more likely to ignore such an attack, which I’m sorry Samantha, regardless of the validity or not of your points, does seem just a little, shall we say, ‘angry’.

I do have some vested interest in Samantha’s piece though, as I am quoted as a source and apparently the inspiration for the title of one of the sections of Samantha’s site, The ‘Joan of Arc’ comment I made was an off-the-cuff remark made to Jonathon Miller in Ecuador in November 2007. I was referring to the mission that both Chloé and I share, to get to the bottom of the marketing claims made by many companies that claim to make chocolate from the bean, or give the impression that they do, when in fact they don’t. This had nothing to do with Chloé’s book. The aim here is to give the consumer an awareness to ‘look beyond the label’ and form their own opinions.

I will say that it’s fairly clear to me that ‘The Chocolate Connoisseur’ is a consumer book and not an academic study or professional guide, and should be taken as such.

The real point I want to get at here, because I think this is the more significant and potentially damaging content in Samantha’s piece, is exactly why Samantha seems to be so upset by Chloé, and why I disagree very strongly with the central premise of her piece.

Yield or flavour?

Once we’re past the fact checking and personal attacks, I believe that Samantha, you have completely missed the point of the modern fine chocolate movement and why almost everyone involved in this field – from our own forum members, to cacao growers in ‘fine’ cacao countries, and even the ICCO – are now realising that taste is also important as well as yield and production.

You are completely free to disagree, but from Robert Linxe to plantation owners in Venezuela and other fine cacao countries, to the many members of the public I encounter at tastings, our part of the cacao industry is in wide agreement that varieties with a high proportion of criollo in their make up produce better tasting chocolate. Or put another way, I believe you just can’t produce the better flavours we are coming to know and love in modern fine chocolate from most forasteros.

To use one of my favourite comparisons, are you suggesting that we should give up the best tasting wine grapes because there are higher yield, more disease resistant varieties available? That we should grow crops that are about pleasure and not a staple for yield and commerce only?

I am not saying that it is not possible to make a reasonable chocolate with forastero. Companies like Pralus, Theo and others have proved that it can be done. But none of these – in my opinion and that of almost everyone I’ve met in fine chocolate – match up to the flavours possible from criollo beans and trinitarios hybrids. And I’ve no doubt that while fermentation variations can play a huge rule, they can’t turn lead into gold.

To suggest that growing criollo rather than forastero would result in the “the total destruction of the cocoa and chocolate industries” is just absurd. While I don’t believe the whole world can suddenly start growing criollo overnight, I also don’t believe there is any basis for Samantha’s claim on this.

The idea that criollo is ‘fragile’ is supposition. Plantation owners in Venezuela have told me that they can achieve yields as high as the best forastero yields. They have also suggested that the ‘low yield’ idea came about because abandoned criollo farms appeared not to have high a production. Hardly surprising, they were abandoned!

The trouble with forastero

Meanwhile, the cacao industry has seen wave after wave of forastero plantings that have not been resistant to disease – just take the example of Brasil in the 1980s. Agronomists and agricultural scientists in the employ of multinational confectionery companies may hark on about inbreeding and frailty, but this has been exactly the problem with cacao in the 20th century, scientists thinking they know best and ignoring flavour – cacao as an agribusiness. To my mind, this has been one of the most damaging aspects of the industry in modern times, and thankfully is now beginning to change. (Mostly because growers believe they can get a better price for fine beans).

Chuao, by the way, is not a good example. It is not a criollo plantation, and the price quoted is considerably below the price I believe is paid. And Chuao would surely lose its reputation if it was overplanted with generic forasteros!

We finally get to the nub of Samanatha’s piece in the closing paragraphs when she states that “the misinformation in ‘The Chocolate Connoisseur’ has done considerable harm to my business.” So, are you saying that Chloé, just one of many, many voices on both the consumer and cacao producer sides of the fine cacao industry supporting criollo and trinitarios over forastero, has actually damaged your business? I’m assuming this must be the case, because I don’t see how a lot of factual errors and mistakes in a consumer book could be so damaging.

If your business has suffered because of the new interest in better tasting chocolate, I am sorry for this, but I’m not at all sorry that the world has woken up to the idea that the cacao bred over thousands of years by the Olmec, Maya and Aztec for its flavour properties might taste better than the wild varieties found by the Spanish in the Amazon – regardless of whether the ‘real’ ancient criollo cacao (recognised by some as a separate sub-species) is more fragile or not.


Just a final note: some of you may want to comment on this, and we are not currently allowing comments on Seventypercent. This is purely technical as we have to move to new forum software which will allow one log in for the forum and the blog sections. This is coming soon, I promise! Meanwhile, please discuss in the forum.

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