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Cocoa is not a traditional crop of the Pacific islands. It originates as an understorey tree, growing in the shady depths of rainforests in tropical parts of Latin America. Cocoa seems to have been domesticated by Olmec and Mayan people in Central America – and traces of cocoa have also been found in archaeological sites in South America, especially in the Iquitos area of Peru and Ecuador. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century, they found the ruling Aztecs using fermented cocoa as a ceremonial drink, associated with the god Quetzacoatl (leading later European botanists to give the plant the scientific name Theobroma or ‘food of the gods’). The cocoa beans were accordingly very valuable and were collected as a tribute by the Aztecs from other peoples that they had conquered. When the Spanish, in turn, conquered Mexico, they took cocoa back to Europe where it was initially used for medicinal purposes and then, when made into a warm, sweet drink, became a favourite at the Spanish court. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries chocolate reached a wider market – and today’s chocolate manufacturers, such as Lindt, Nestlé and Hershey became household names. In England, Quaker families became advocates and manufacturers of cocoa and chocolate, as a healthier alternative to alcohol – and the brands of Fry, Cadbury and Rowntree were established, along with the idea that chocolate could be a pure and healthy product.

Cocoa was brought to the Pacific by the expanding European colonial powers, with Germans, French and British companies involved in bringing the crop to present-day Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. The region today produces just a tiny fraction of global production, with only Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands selling bulk cocoa into the commodity markets. The growing interest in ‘single origin’ and ‘fine-flavour’ cocoa has, however, brought new attention and significance to the region and to its many islands. Due to the lack of large-scale commercial production – and accompanying economic pressures – many Pacific islanders have continued to grow what are now regarded as ‘heirloom’ varieties of cocoa; these are perhaps not as productive as modern hybrids, but each has its own unique flavour characteristics. Combine that with the pristine growing conditions and unique ‘terroir’ effects of specific Pacific islands, it’s no wonder that discerning chocolate makers and consumers are seeking out new cocoa ‘origins’.

In 2017, Forastero beans from Vanua Cocoa on the north coast of Vanua Levu won global recognition at the Cocoa of Excellence competition at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris. Now you can try chocolate made from our Trinitario cocoa beans, also gown in Vanua Levu… and see what you think of this unique new product.

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