The conventional wisdom used to be that there were three ‘varieties’ of cocoa: Criollo (pronounced cri-oy-yo – the Spanish word for ‘native’), with large, furrowed pods, originating from Mexico and Central America; Forastero, with smaller, smooth pods from the lower Amazon basin (sometimes called ‘Amelonado’ for their resemblance to honeydew melons); and Trinitario, the ‘hybrids’ between these two original types, developed in the Caribbean islands.
In the last decade, studies of genetics using DNA techniques have shown that there are ten, perhaps eleven, groups of naturally occurring cocoa, each as different as Criollo and Forastero, within the single species, Theobroma cacao. When these different types are grown together, outside their areas of origin, pollination occurs between the different types (whether conducted intentionally by crop breeders, or more randomly by insects) and the results are an infinite variety of pod shapes and colours and bean characteristics. If as a cocoa grower (or breeder) you like a particular combination of characteristics, you can propagate a ‘clone’ of genetically identical trees, using grafting or budding (or, with the help of a laboratory, by tissue culture).
At KokoMana, we started with a dozen or so recognised ‘clones’ that cocoa experts thought would do well in Fiji – especially because of their resistance to ‘black pod disease’ (caused by the fungus Phytophthora palmivora, that thrives in damp, tropical conditions). These include the famous Lafi 7 from Samoa (which Samoans appreciate for making excellent Koko-Samoa, their national beverage), NA32 from Peru, ICS1 from Trinidad, KEE 42 (and several others) from Papua New Guinea, and some selections from the nearby Wainigata Research Station, 20km up the road, here on Vanua Levu. To these we have added a few selections that we have found on farms in our area, amongst the ‘natural variation’ arising from uncontrolled pollination under local conditions.
Genetic fingerprinting studies carried out by a laboratory in Australia (using markers from the US Department of Agriculture) have shown that most of our varieties are of a classic Trinitario background – roughly half Criollo, half Forastero. However, other quite different genetics are coming to light as new trees come into production and are sampled and analysed.
Very little is known about the chocolate-making qualities of any of these diverse materials. Most chocolate makers just mix them all in together and ‘hope for the best’. At KokoMana we are at the exciting stage of having multiplied enough trees of some of these clones to be able to make chocolate just from a single kind of cocoa. Ask our chocolate maker about these experiments and maybe you can try the latest samples… see whether you can detect the difference that genetics can make, among the complex interactions of terroir, fermentation, drying, roasting and conching!
WRS11 - one of the clones from Fiji's Winigata Research Station breeding programme