LIMA (Reuters) - Connoisseurs who take chocolate as seriously as sommeliers study wine are challenging the widespread use of an inferior cocoa pushed by the U.S. government in its war against drugs in Peru, considered by many to be the birthplace of cocoa.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, introduced the high-yielding but acidic tasting CCN-51 cocoa hybrid to Peru in 2002 to offer farmers an alternative to planting coca - the key ingredient in cocaine.
The program has had some success but chocolate makers are encouraging farmers to instead cultivate smaller amounts of rare, native cocoa that fetches higher prices from buyers who value complex and subtle flavors and judge chocolate by the personality of its cocoa, like the nose of a fine wine.
"I don't understand why USAID is here, in a country so rich in diversity, where everything is virgin. What need is there to introduce new varieties?" said Mariella Balbi, owner of the tiny firm Guanni Chocolates, which sells in California and in Lima.
She sells boxes of 12 dark chocolate truffles made from Peru's native white cocoa and filled with local ingredients like pisco brandy and Amazonian fruits for $40.
USAID says it has a foreign policy mandate to curb coca production by encouraging alternative cash crops, not to cater to gourmets. But it also says it may be open to commercializing native varieties in the future and it is sponsoring a contest to encourage farmers to cultivate more native cocoa.
"We want to help Peru become one of the world's leading specialty cocoa producers," said Loren Stoddard, director of alternative development at USAID in Peru.
Specialty cocoa can refer to organic, fair-trade or native cocoa. Gourmets say nothing makes better chocolate than native cocoa.
Building on a culinary and economic boom in Peru, start-up chocolate makers are holding tastings to highlight accents ranging from nutty to floral in chocolate made from cocoa native to distinct microclimates, altitudes and latitudes.
They say Peru will never become a global bulk cocoa supplier like the Ivory Coast, so they instead want it to be the main cocoa source for high-end chocolate makers.
"USAID did a fine job developing an alternative crop with CCN-51, but times change. What people want changes," said pastry chef Astrid Gutsche, wife of Peruvian food icon Gaston Acurio. "This idea of native cocoa is quite new and I believe it's the future for Peru. We have something that no one else has."
Gutsche hopes to promote Peruvian chocolate the way her husband, who owns restaurants on several continents, helped to introduce Peruvian cuisine to the world. She has traveled to remote jungle areas hoping to convince farmers to find and cultivate naturally growing cocoa varieties instead of CCN-51.
It can be a tough sell. Peru and its neighbor Colombia are the world's biggest cocaine producers and when farmers do abandon coca planting they usually choose the highest-yielding alternative crops.
CCN-51 cocoa, developed in Ecuador in the 1960s and planted throughout Africa to supply makers of mass-produced chocolate, grows faster and yields more than most native varieties.
"There is a lot of pressure to plant CCN-51 from institutions," said Juan Rojas, who leads a farmer's cooperative in the northwest region of Piura that grows native white cocoa.
CCN-51 is considered a "bulk" rather than "fine-flavor" cocoa by the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), and it is more resistant to the witches' broom disease that slashed output in neighboring Brazil, once the world's No. 2 cocoa producer.
Rojas says Piura's native white cocoa yields one third less per hectare than CCN-51 but that some European chocolate makers are buying it for $4,000 per tonne. Bulk cocoa fetches around $2,300 per tonne on the New York futures market.
$12 CHOCOLATE BARS?
Luxury chocolate makers value Piura cocoa's soft white flesh for its earthy, slightly nutty traces. They say it does not have the acidic taste often found in chocolate made from CCN-51.
Proponents of native cocoa believe prices paid to farmers will further increase as the market develops, citing a growing demand for single-origin foods at U.S. stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.
The market for native cocoa has been discussed in the world's elite chocolate circles as a way to craft richer, more diverse treats while protecting rare cocoa varieties in danger of extinction.
"We want to come up with a system in which we actually link the chocolate bar directly with the origin for commercial purposes," said Moises Gomez-Miranda, a project manager at ICCO.
The London-based organization says the demand for fine flavor cocoa has started to grow very rapidly.
Native cocoa from Venezuela's famed Chuao region can fetch up to $10,000 per tonne though the country's overall cocoa production has fallen in recent years due to economic turmoil.
Peru is especially interesting for native cocoa fans because new varieties are still being identified in its part of the Amazon rain forest, where Spanish 'conquistadores' found the crop five centuries ago.
"The Peruvian Amazon is the cradle of cocoa and it's home to very important genetic clusters," said Maricel Presilla, a U.S.-based food historian and author of "The New Taste of Chocolate."
"Now that they have been identified genetically it is time to propagate, time to grow them. Money has to be placed into research expeditions and germ plasm banks," she said.
No one knows how many types of cocoa lurk in Peru's mountains and jungles, but two Americans recently stumbled on one genetic variety that was thought to be extinct. Now, Swiss chocolate makers produce bars out of Maranon's Pure Nacional cocoa with equipment developed in the 1800s, when Nacional was one of the world's most coveted cocoas.
Moonstruck Chocolate, a company in Oregon, sells packs of 12 chocolate bars made with 68 percent Maranon cocoa for $144. A 36-pack box of Hershey's bars, in comparison, sells for $19.95.
QUALITY NOT QUANTITY
Critics, however, say farmers are not yet paid high enough prices for native cocoa to justify the lower output. Few people are willing to pay $12 for a chocolate bar or care to pinpoint the exact location of its ingredients, they say.
"I just got back from Europe -- organic and fair trade are what's in demand. They aren't fixated on type, it could be CCN-51 it could be something else," said Rolando Herrera, President of APPCACOA, Peru's largest cooperative of cocoa growers and a USAID partner.
After the Dominican Republic, Peru says it is the world's No. 2 exporter of organic cocoa, which is worth between $100 and $300 more per tonne than bulk cocoa according to the ICCO. Rare native types, like Peru's Maranon Pure Nacional or Venezuela's Chuao, are worth much more.
Cocoa grown by former coca-planting farmers supported by USAID is sold as La Orquidea chocolate bars alongside Lindt and Toblerone in Peruvian grocery stores. In 2010, those farmers won a certificate at the Salon de Chocolat in Paris, surprising purists who consider CCN-51 incapable of producing quality chocolate.
Herrera says hybrids like CCN-51 can be considered organic, depending on how they are grown, and that the cooperatives are working with scientists to develop a new, better-tasting hybrid by grafting the CCN-51 onto native cocoa.
But Guanni Chocolate's Balbi says that practice endangers native varieties, which are becoming harder to find. She wants farmers to focus less on quantity and more on quality.
"Peru is a country of fine, aromatic cocoa, and like all good things it comes in small quantities."