I don't know about you, but when I hear the term Nacional applied to cacao, two words spring immediately to mind:
Ecuador has long been thought to be the home of cacao Nacional, a variety of cacao unique in the world: it is the only cacao that has a name for its flavor Arriba.
Yet, Pure Nacional as it has been named and is being promoted by Maraon Chocolate is from Peru, and the chocolate made from the beans does not (at least to me and many others I have asked who have tasted it) have any of the distinctive orange blossom/jasmine aroma that is associated with the name Arriba. Maraon Chocolate even acknowledges that Nacional is known for fruity/floral aroma on the home page of its web site, yet the chocolate did not deliver on that expectation.
According to USDA ARS (United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service), Peruvian Pure Nacional (from here on in, Nacional.P[eru]) and "pure" Ecuadorian Nacional (from here on Nacional.E[cuador]) are genetically one and the same. "Pure" Nacional.E, is thought to have disappeared in Ecuador as a result of a blight that began in 1916 and that wiped out some 95% of Nacional stands in Ecuador within a few short years. However, there are some key differences between Nacional.P and Nacional.E, differences that many (including me) might think are expressions of meaningful genetic differences:
- Nacional.P contains high percentages - 40-60% - of pure white seeds (there is no record of Nacional.E displaying this trait).
- Nacional.P grows at very high elevations for cacao - more than twice what is considered "normal."
- Nacional.P is high yielding when compared with Nacional.E.
- Nacional.P is disease resistant when compared with Nacional.E.
The story of the discovery and voyage to market of Nacional.P is remarkably similar to that of Volker Lehmann and the wild beans of the Beni (Bolivia), the cacao silvestre that are the basis of Felchlin's Cru Sauvage among other chocolates. Brian Horsley (a ChocolateLife member) has been working in Peru for many years and stumbled across this remarkable strain of cacao. Horsleyy realized that he had something different and special and, working with stepfather Dan Pearson, a California-based investment professional, worked to bring the cacao to market. Along the way, samples were sent to the USDA ARS lab where genetic testing confirmed that the cacao was a match for "pure" Nacional.E.
A short aside: early in 2010, after my first trip to Bolivia to visit Volker, I encouraged him to send samples to USDA ARS for testing. Tests revealed that the wild beans of the Beni constituted a unique genetic cluster, separate from the ten proposed by Juan Carlos Motomayor in 2008, bringing that total up to fourteen.)
As with the wild beans of the Beni, the logistics of getting the Nacional.P beans to market are challenging. In both instances, the beans are wild harvested, and collecting them centrally and fermenting and drying them is only the start of the process. In both locations, getting the beans from the collection center to a place where they can be exported requires many different forms of transportation and can take weeks or longer before they get on a boat for shipment overseas to make chocolate. Nacional.P is not unique in this respect.
Like the wild beans of the Beni (and unlike Nacional.E), Nacional.P displays a remarkable resistance to many cacao diseases (or, at any rate, the cacao stands show little evidence of disease), and cacao professionals are unsure why this is the case. It is conjectured that the habitat (an isolated mountain valley) and the fact that there has been no deliberate breeding/selection may have something to do with this. At the moment, no one knows for sure what is cause and what is effect.
Although the folks at Maraon Chocolate are not publicly revealing the name of the company that has been making the chocolate from the beans, its obvious: Felchlin. Mention Switzerland and 1879 longitudinal conches in the same sentence (on the home page of their web site, for example) and that narrows the possible players down to just the one. Furthermore, when we were served samples of the chocolate at the launch event on January 11th at ICE (Institute of Culinary Education), those samples had the words "Grand Cru" embedded in them from the mold in a design that is instantly reconizable as Felchlins. Not only that, the chocolate is 68% and is conched for 60 hours - the same as Cru Sauvage. And finally, two people associated with the marketing of the beans and the chocolate, Paul Edward (aka Chef Rubber) and Franz Ziegler, both have long-standing ties to Felchlin and their US distributor, Swiss Chalet Fine Foods.
The question is: Why all the secrecy? That lack of transparency extends to the location of the valley where Nacional.P grows. From an intellectual property perspective I suppose it makes a little sense Cacao Maraon is protecting its investment, fearing, perhaps, that someone may come in behind them and secure the supply out from under them. All we have been told is that the valley is somewhere along the Maraon River downstream from Lima. The lack of transparency is troubling, especially in an era where there is intense interest and scrutiny in origins and stories about shenanigans in Chuao.
According to what was revealed at the launch, work is underway in expanding production, which amounted to ~12 MT (tonnes, or metric tons, 1000kg) of beans in the just-past harvest year. Much of this increase will be achieved through a grafting program aimed at delivering a more uniform percentage of white beans, which will make consistent, uniform fermentation easier. Unlike "wild cultivated" programs in Bolivia, where no selection is being made, the grafting program being undertaken by Maraon in Peru appears to be a classical approach of selecting a single variety (or very small number of varieties) for propagation for a specific set of desired traits. In the long run it will be interesting to see what this does to both yield and disease resistance.
Research in Ecuador on Nacional.E has identified a total of 6 trees (from more than 100,000) that can be thought of as "pure Nacional.E." All other Nacional in Ecuador has been hybridized (deliberately or naturally) with introduced varieties in the last 100 years or so. According to Cacao Maraon there are no plans to export seeds, grafts, or seedlings out of Peru to Ecuador, which, to my mind, is a wasted opportunity, because chocolate made from Nacional.P has none, or virtually none, of the hallmark Arriba flavor.
While it may be technically true that Nacional.P is indeed "Pure Nacional" hanging the marketing of the cacao on this name can only cause some unneeded confusion, despite what the Maraon Chocolate folks think. People associate the Arriba descriptor with Nacional (even though, in most cases, this conflation is more marketing hype than reality, or is result of a mistaken belief that Nacional and Arriba are synonyms). Furthermore, there is at least a third Nacional in the region, the Cacao Nacional Boliviano, itself a genetically distinct variety according to USDA ARS. Motomayor identified a distinct genetic cluster he called Maraon, which does not apply to this cacao, increasing the potential for confusion in the marketplace.
From a research perspective, it would be very interesting to see what would happen if Nacional.P were to be planted in the Guayas River valley in Ecuador, the source of Nacional that exhibited the famous Arriba flavor. There are very few opportunities to truly understand the nature/nurture concept in agriculture and the true effects of terroir (in this instance, micronutrients in the soil) and their affect on flavor development. Nacional.P grown along the Maraon River in Peru does not exhibit the characteric Arriba flavor. If some where transplanted in Ecuador, would it? A very interesting question which, sadly, may never come about, leaving the chocolate world a much poorer place.
Another very interesting line of research would be to introduce Nacional.P into a breeding program in Ecuador to address the yield and disease resistance deficiencies of Nacional.E. Could Nacional.P be part of an answer to reducing the spread of CCN51? We may never know because of a (in my opinion misplaced) desire to very tightly control the ownership of Nacional.P.
What About The Chocolate Itself
Surprisingly, the taste of the chocolate itself was a secondary objective of the launch event on January 11th even though the chocolate is being touted as the best chocolate either Edward or Ziegler and many others have tasted. In all respects, the chocolate is classic Swiss chocolate as crafted by Felchlin. It is very reminiscent in texture to Cru Savuage, though the melt is not quite as delicate (I have described the melt on the Cru Sauvage as being more like dissolving than melting). The fat content is a tad on the high side, contributing to a buttery mouth feel and a very long, lingering finish. From an overall flavor profile perspective it fits between the Cru Sauvage (Bolivia) and the Cru Hacienda (Dominican Republic). The Cru Sauvage tends to be light and aromatic with the aromas in the top of the mouth and in the nose. The Cru Hacienda is all rich and dark and on the tongue and in the lower part of the mouth. The chocolate Felchlin made from the Maraon cacao fits comfortably in the middle of the mouth delivering nice rounded chocolate flavor that lingers for a very long time. It is a very pleasant chocolate with nothing challenging about it.
Is it the best chocolate in the world, as they at least verbally claim? Thats not for a cacao marketing company to decide. They can announce it, but the crowning really should be made by an independent body. For me, a best chocolate in the world would be one that I could not live without, and Chocolate Maraons interpretation, through Felchlin, does not rise to that level, for me.
Mark Christian of The C-Spot (www.c-spot.com) was a consultant to Maraon on the development of the chocolate gives it an 8.19 out of 10. Upala 82 from US startup Potomac gets an 8.39 and Xoconusco from Bonnat gets a 9.5. Oh, well. (Surprisingly, Mark makes a simple mistake on his website, identifying the origin of Maraon as Peru, where the origins of the other chocolates are the country of manufacture.
All that said the project is a remarkable achievement and one that needs to be acknowledged for what it is, not hyped for what it is not.
The original full press release can be read by clicking here:
The Maraon Chocolate web site is at http://www.maranoncacao.com/
clay - http://www.thechocolatelife.com/clay/
updated by @clay: 04/10/15 11:43:55AM