In this article, Dr. Silke Elwers, a scientific consultant with years of experience in the world of cacao, provides some valuable insights into the meaning of origin and flavor characteristics of cacao.
The center of origin of the species Theobroma cacao is not Central America, to where it was brought by pre-Columbian traders. In fact, the genetic origin of cacao is in the so-called Upper Amazon.
Cacao was brought to Central America and the Caribbean around 2000 B.C. and thus has a long cultivation history in this area. The corresponding varieties are categorized under the name “Criollo” or “native” cacao. When the Europeans discovered the Amazonian region, they found out that wild cacao was growing in this area. They started to install cacao plantations in the Bahia region and also introduced some of the Amazonian varieties to Central America. Thus the name “Forastero” or “foreign” was formed for Amazonian cocoa varieties. Hybrids between Forastero and Criollo form the third group, the so-called Trinitarios (also because the first large scale cultivation took place on the island of Trinidad).
However, this classification is much more related to the historical development of cacao farming and trading than based on genetics reality. In fact, the gene pool of the Criollo group is rather small as all Criollo varieties originate from ancient indigenous cultivars. In contrast, the Forastero group is extremely diverse, with disconnected wild populations alongside all of the many rivers of the Amazon basin. Thus, this so-called Forastero group is very inhomogeneous and many unknown varieties with unique flavors are still waiting to be discovered.
“Fine or flavor” cacaos are the varieties that possess characteristic flavor notes besides the basic cocoa flavor. These can be fruity, floral and also nutty aroma notes. Current studies show that many of these very characteristic components come from the cacao fruit pulp which surrounds the fresh cacao seeds. During fermentation, these compounds infiltrate the cacao seeds and thus form the unique flavor profile of a fine or flavor cacao variety.
Besides, polyphenols and other very bitter and astringent components are leaking from the seeds during fermentation so that the fermented seeds lose a part of their bitterness.