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Scientists make rare find

An expedition to Peru yields new and rare cacao plants – good news for confectioners looking for new flavours


Washington, D.C. – Agriculture Research Service scientists, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have found new cacao plants with unique flavours.

Not only are the flavours unique, but the scientists also found them in an unexpected place: Peru, instead of Venezuela and Ecuador, the usual source of these specialized confections.

New cacao plants

The scientists from the Sustainable Perennial Crops Laboratory, and Systematic Mycology and Microbiology Laboratory, and Peruvian teams found the new cacao plants in 2008 and 2009 in the Amazon Basin of Peru.

In total, the researchers found 342 new cacao tree samples during the trip.

One of these, discovered by a team from Maranon Chocolate, was Pure Nacional, an old, very rare and highly coveted variety.

A maturing cacao pod on a cacao tree. Photo from the ARS.

It’s great news, says the ARS, for an industry that covets new and unique flavour sources.

Pure Nacional

Pure Nacional was first discovered in Ecuador in the 1600s and brought to the world by Swiss chocolate makers in the early 1800s. Pure Nacional was considered the world’s premiere chocolate and dominated the market for more than a century.

But in 1916, diseases destroyed 95 per cent of the world’s crop. What was left was crossbred with disease resistant non-Pure Nacional varieties, but the flavour was inferior.

Collaboration

U.S. scientists are collaborating with the Peru-based Instituto de Cultivos Tropicales to identify the new varieties of cacao and are categorizing the DNA of the specimens.

The group has identified new cacao types with flavours that are distinctly Peruvian, which may one day be marketed in the same way as wine – by geographical provenance.