Heirloom cacao

By
November 21, 2007

The following question came my way recently:

What do you think about the term “heirloom cacao”? What exactly does it mean? Is it just a marketing gimmick?

Heirloom cacao is definitely not a marketing gimmick, and I like the phrase a lot because it encapsulates so much in such a small phrase. When applied to cacao, heirloom means exactly the same thing it does when applied to other foods like tomatoes and potatoes or flower seeds. An heirloom cacao variety is one that existed before modern hybridization programs.

Much of the cacao grown in the world today has been hybridized in the lab (or, more accurately, nursery, because there have been no releases of genetically modified cacao into production agricultural settings). The desired characteristics chosen for these cacao hybrids are usually disease resistance and increased yield, not improved taste. When planted in monocultures (i.e., large farms of all one hybrid) the results are good for the farmer in terms of bigger harvests but generally bad for chocolate lovers because the chocolate made from most of the hybrids is boring.

There are examples of deliberate hybrids that can now be considered heirloom varieties. The first deliberate Criollo/Forastero crosses took place on the island of Trinidad in the 1700s and resulted in what we now call Trinitario. While they originally were manmade hybrids, during the intervening centuries they have naturally crossbred with other varieties to adapt themselves more specifically to the locations they’re growing in.

A cacao pod.

The cacao tree is unusual in many respects, and one of them has to do with pollination and crossbreeding. Cacao flowers are pollinated by midges (small flies) which carry pollen from one tree to another, resulting in a lot of spontaneous hybrids. Cacao flowers can be pollinated multiple times, so it’s common to find multiple hybrids in the same pod. The cacao tree carries the basic genetics of the fruit and the variations are caused by pollination. Over time, as seeds get scattered (or propagated by hand, though most nurseries use grafting techniques as a surer way of preserving specific genetic traits), quite a bit of variety emerges within a stand of cacao trees, not to mention the variety that can be seen on a single tree.

Heirloom cacao varieties, while they may not have the most desired characteristics from a yield-to-work ratio, do make chocolate that is more varied and interesting than modern monoculture hybrids. They also may be better adapted to their growing environments. In the 1980s, Hershey developed large cacao farms in southern Belize using imported hybrids. Hurricane Irene devastated farms planted in these hybrids, but the older heirloom varieties that had been growing in the region since Mayan times withstood the hurricane far better.

So there are many reasons to encourage the growing of heirloom cacao.

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