Cocoa trees grow in a very narrow belt 10–20 degrees either side of the equator. They are fragile and need constant rainfall, warmth and shelter from the wind and sun. Basically there are two genetic types of cocoa – Forastero and Criollo. Forastero is the bulk cocoa grown for the commodity markets. With round pods, it is a high-yielding, hardy variety, the flavour of which is not considered to be particularly fine. Criollo is the original fine cocoa bean, a fragile – and now an endangered – species. The pods are normally red and elongated, and the flavour very fruity, redolent of ripe raspberries, redcurrants, and citrus fruit. At present this species of bean accounts for less than 5 per cent of the world’s cocoa production.
Said to have been the result of natural cross-pollination after a hurricane in Trinidad in the eighteenth century, Trinitario is the name given to a hybrid cross of the Criollo and Forastero. This variety is highly regarded by cocoa experts, as it has an excellent flavour with predominant green notes; apple, melon, oak, and balsam. There are many other hybrid beans, the best of which are fine in flavour and more robust than the Criollo bean.
It may be helpful to think of cocoa beans in the same terms as coffee. At the extreme ends of the coffee scale, Arabica and Robusta beans. Arabica (equivalent to Criollo) are regarded as the best, and it would be criminal to roast them black and hide their delicate flavour. Robusta coffee beans (equivalent to Forastero), however, are almost always highly roasted and used to make very strong espresso coffee. Most of the hybrid cocoa beans fall into the category of ‘fine and flavour’ beans, for which a premium is paid and due care is taken with their roasting, etc.
© 2003 Chantal Coady. All rights reserved.