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Science on Purpose: Ancient cocoa plant rediscovered

The science of genetic testing has helped confirm a new strain of cocoa bean, and now pure Nacional may start appearing in modern chocolate. A single bar (80g) made from pure Nacional was produced in 2011 and priced at a little over $20. Since then it has become more readily available, but is still only grown in Peru.

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By Keith Morden (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: June 19, 2013

Chocolate is known worldwide as a sweet treat with no equal. People have long been producing different kinds of chocolate, experimenting with different ingredients, different amounts and even the species of cocoa the chocolate bean comes from.

Almost a century ago, in 1916, there was a region of Ecuador that was the only known area to contain a type of cocoa plant recognized as pure Nacional. Although the region still exists today, a disease had wiped out the entire population of pure Nacional. It was thought that the plant had gone extinct until 2010 when a dramatic discovery took place.

Dan Pearson and Brian Horsley were searching through Peru’s Maranon Canyon with a small crew and happened to stumble upon a small remote village. This village was surrounded by a 6000 foot cliff shaped like a horseshoe. In this village were a number of farms, and found among them was one farm growing cocoa plants. After a quick taste, one plant was sent for analysis to Dr. Lyndel Meinhardt and Dr. Dapeng Zhang. Meinhardt is the head researcher at the USDA sustainable perennial crops laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, while Zhang is a geneticist working in the same field. Both are respected for their knowledge in pursuing more sustainable crops by selectively breeding favourable genes and traits.

Meinhardt and Zhang went to work on analysing the plant. By sequencing parts of the cocoa bean’s DNA, they were able to compare the data against an international cocoa database of about 5300 entries. None of these entries being pure Nacional plants with white berries, the fact that one was delivered right to these researcher’s doors is unprecedented.

By taking genetic samples of the plant, it was possible to connect this newly discovered plant with the old, thought to be extinct, variety.

Pearson and Horsley had an unknown, yet renowned chocolate maker in Switzerland produce the first chocolate bar made from pure Nacional in almost a century.

Soon after they returned to the tiny village in order to participate in the harvest of the pure Nacional beans. This was done in order to observe the harvesting and cultivating techniques that have been used for generations. It was the past and future of chocolate coming together.

The science of genetic testing has helped confirm a new strain of cocoa bean, and now pure Nacional may start appearing in modern chocolate. A single bar (80g) made from pure Nacional was produced in 2011 and priced at a little over $20. Since then it has become more readily available, but is still only grown in Peru.

Fortunato no. 4 is one of the few brands of chocolate that feature pure Nacional beans in its recipe. The plant is best known for 40 per cent of its beans being a gorgeous white colour when ripe. With production at an all-time high, we have travelling chocolatiers and a team of well-respected geneticists to thank for this new breed of cocoa plant.

Chocolate lovers everywhere  rejoice.

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