Beautiful beaches, ancient empires, and treacherous mountains, Peru is known for them all. However, there’s more to this story than merely the landscape. Peru has seen conquerors, wars, drug lords, and everything in between. However, as one of the world’s growing economic and trade powerhouses, there’s a surprising catalyst in the midst of this country’s development: chocolate.
Single-origin and craft chocolate is on the rise, and for good reason. Chocolate in itself is already delicious. Mix in the care and expertise that accompanies the craft chocolate market and the result is astronomical. It’s no surprise then that Peru is making a name for itself in this rising market, and when you look at the history behind the movement the taste only gets sweeter.
From Conquerors to Cacao
If there’s anything unexpected when it comes to chocolate and Peru, it’s that it has taken so long for the country to become known for its cacao, especially given that it’s the debated birthplace of the plant to begin with!
Current research suggests that the cacao tree originated in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Peru, and continued to thrive in the Peruvian climate which maintains ideal temperatures and altitude for the crop to flourish. However, cacao continued to be the sleeping agricultural giant among the indigenous Incas who inhabited Peru at the time, and its potential remained hidden.
The neighboring Mayans, on the other hand, took notice and domesticated the crop, and it was only after this that the Incas began to seriously interact with the plant. The historical prominence of cacao within Mayan civilization can be dated as early as 250 AD and was also present with the ensuing Aztecs in 1300. Somewhere between the Mayans and Aztecs, the substance was being traded to the Incas and was eventually cultivated as well.
Everything would change in the 16th century when Hernan Cortez arrived in South America. His engagement with the New World would result in cacao being transported back to Europe, having sugar thrown into the process, and soon enough the whole world would be craving the sweet substance.
Chocolate from the Andes
The 16th century turn around that shifted the use of chocolate from religious and social in the New World to edible and sweet in the Old World would continue to have repercussions that are still impacting Peru today.
Not only did Peru eventually jump in on the chocolate trade, but it’s one of the hardest hitting competitors in the industry today with quite the interesting agricultural profile behind it. For starters, cacao grown in Peru, on the broadest scale, is scattered across 3 different regions: Piura, San Martin, and Cusco, and each of these regions can be further divided totaling about 10 different minor regions that Peru cultivates cacao from.
The cool thing is that, concerning the 3 main broad regions, each area features starkly contrasting geological landscapes including coastlines, mountains, and dense jungle. This further affects the variety and distinctions within the cacao crop from each area adding to the unique profile of Peruvian chocolate.
Not only is Peru growing cacao from a variety of different landscapes, but it’s growing it in astronomical proportions! As of 2016, Peru exported some 108,000 tons of cacao that was cultivated from over 129,800 hectares of farms and plantations. This is up from just 40,000 hectares in 2007, and the momentum only seems to be growing!
Besides just the quantity of the crop, Peru also has a lot to offer in terms of its cacao varieties as well.
Peruvian Cacao Varieties
You’ll find all 3 main variations of the cacao plant in Peru: Criollo, Trinitario, and Forastero.
Criollo is the more special and unique variety of cacao because its flavor profile is so abnormal in terms of what one expects when it comes to chocolate flavor. Because of this it appears in only the most quality chocolate. In addition to Criollo, Peru also grows plenty of the common Forastero variety which is the typical chocolate source known for its hardiness and full bodied flavor. Lastly, Peru also features the Trinitario variety which is a type of hybrid between Criollo and Forastero which features the best of both worlds between the two, being both delicate yet full bodied and flavorful.
These three varieties make of the crux of Peru’s craft chocolate contributions, however there is one thing Peru has that’s almost unheard of anywhere else: albino chocolate! That’s right, there’s a rare form of Criollo that produces white cacao beans, and may be one of the most special types of chocolate you’d ever be able to sample…assuming you could afford it!
The Future of Peruvian Chocolate
There are perhaps few countries with such a positive outlook on their cacao trade as Peru. We’ve already looked at some of the current trends in its exploding chocolate industry, and it shows no signs of slowing. Peru is quickly becoming one of the largest exporters of cacao, and is already the number one exporter of organic cacao.
The impact this trade is having on the country cannot be understated. Well over a decade ago, Peru instated a voluntary program calling farmers to replace coca farms with cacao farms, essentially sparking a huge movement in the country away from producing plants that lead to the formation of cocaine, and opting for chocolate cacao which has added a huge boost to the economy.
As more countries in Asia and Eastern Europe develop to join the ranks of already developed countries, the demand for cacao is only increasing. This is just in time too as Peruvian cacao is gaining renown and may soon be making appearances as far east as India.
Regardless, it continues to be a unique single-origin chocolate that is coveted and sought after in chocolate connoisseur circles today. As much of the world leaves its forests and jungles for urban life and business, the farms and plantations of in the Andes Mountains continue to be a testament of a different way of life. They produce a country altering crop, and, with no signs of stopping, could well propel Peru to new heights.
By David Gilbert
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