At the Foot of a Cacao Tree: A Note from Puerto Rico
From the time that the conquistadors brought cacao across the Atlantic from South America, it has been a difficult-to-obtain luxury in the Western world. The plant only grows within twenty degrees of the equator, requires shade, and produces only a few pods per harvest. This makes the price of chocolate volatile, like the price of oil. Lately, rising demand for cacao in developing countries has created a shortage. According to a March 20 article in the Wall Street Journal, some candy makers are now resorting to a cacao variety called CCN 51 that yields more beans but produces chocolate with a sour flavor. Needless to say, those chocolate suppliers that take maintaining taste and quality more seriously than cutting costs, including our sources, Guittard and Valrhona, are being careful to avoid CCN 51.
We have hope that the growing demand for chocolate will create opportunities for economic development in cacao-producing regions. Fair trade cacao gives farmers in those countries new chances for success. I recently was able to visit Puerto Rico, where the Puerto Rican Cacao Project is evaluating the potential for commercial cacao production on the island. In the mid-1600’s, cacao was one of Puerto Rico’s biggest export crops, until a hurricane at the end of the 17th century caused a food shortage that forced farmers to abandon it. The Puerto Rican Cacao Project collects samples from old cacao trees on the island to preserve their genetic variability. “Unique cacao on the island,” reads its website, “might make Puerto Rican cacao and chocolate stand out.”
My parents winter in Puerto Rico, and while visiting them this month, I decided to go to the Tropical Agricultural Research Station (TARS) in Mayaguez. In this complex, funded by the US Department of Agriculture, cacao and other tropical crops are preserved and studied. The visitor’s entrance led to a beautiful old hacienda style building, where a friendly woman directed us to the cacao plants.
The cacao tree I found was 50 years old and 24 feet high. Farmed cacao trees can grow as high as 26 feet and live about 60 years, so this one was definitely mature. Although not abundant with fruit (yes, the cocoa you eat started as a fruit!), the tree was still producing beautiful pods. Flower buds along its trunk indicated that more pods were in the making, since the pod begins as a beautiful white flower.
Until the day when I actually visit a working cacao farm, this will have to do. It was a thrill to see the tree once named the “food of the gods” up close and personal. To understand how it grows and the elaborate process required to transform a cacao pod into chocolate gives me reverence for this amazing fruit.