Report from Nicaragua Cacao HArvest

John Hepler
12/06/10 08:17:52PM
Dear Fellow Chocolate Scientists
Greetings from the Nicaraguan cacao harvest (delayed slightly due to a very rainy rainy-season) now in full swing.
First a few basics: the fermentation temperatures both in north and southern Nicaragua vary between 45C and 50C. Tranlsating to a max of 122F. Thus I was WRONG in my memory of seeing a 135F thermometer reading last year. This temp range must be pretty universal.
The "white cacao" is very rare indeed, and for good reason: the pod walls are very thick, such that only small amounts of seeds can fit inside. One supposedly larger grove of these turned out not to be. So we are planting these as much as possible, including a friend of mine-- Joe Ryan-- on his small plantation on the Diamante Peninsula by Granada. Joe can afford to not worry too much about the yield.
As has been reported in this Science section, there are odd white cacao seeds spread throughout the hybrids planted everywhere. The mandador on one farm here reports the Lagarto type has between 10 and 20 white seeds per hundred. The Lagarto is distinguished by its large and rounded bottom point, which seems to be a characteristic of criollo types. The Lagarto also has a thicker pod.

A few weeks ago, I was offered some "cacao rojo", so-called due to the red POD color. Okay I bought it since damn near ALL the cacao pods here in Nicaragua are yellow at maturity. It turns out to taste much stronger than the Indio I'm getting. I wonder if its a sign of higher forastero content.

I have been paying a one dollar premium for cacao Indio, an old type with what I think must be close to the original criollo taste. We loved the taste when we got it before. The farmers like the Indio because it is resistant to their great problem, moniliasis. Nevertheless, many of these old trees now sport 2 to 3 inch diameter grafts of the "trinitario acriollizado", the new high-flyer. They are always looking for higher yields, since everything here is about quantity, well fermented and dried of course. We'll see how this shakes out.

I am taking in samples of different dried leaves to find out-- for my own amusement, and for the possible benefit of the farmers-- the relative percentages of criollo and forastero genes in the interesting older types. Testing will be done by the USDA. Some folks think that there are seven or eight different genotypes. The USDA seems to lean toward the Big Two. By this reckoning the Trinitario was the first well known hybrid, followed by thousands more.

We are making chocolate samples in our kitchen, Cocina Marisol, all at the rate of 70% and 30% sugar, We have no melangeur but with some trickery, we are making something quite edible, and fun at a tasting.

I love the small farmers here. We have already sampled various chocolates from various cacaos together. We'll have a party next time and raffle out pruning saws, a lovely double-bit ax, a one man crosscut saw and a few solar powered headlamps.
The terrain of cacao country is much like my home back in Tennessee in midsummer. But without paved roads. And with plenty of howler monkeys. Photos and notes may be seen at