I was recently invited to a cacao tasting event as a part of the Peru feeds your soul initiative for Expo 2015 Milano. The tasting took place at the beautiful Daniel restaurant in Brera, where chef Daniel Canzian is hosting a series of Four hands dinners with top Peruvian chefs.
Yesterday, I along with several journalists had the fortune of being taught about cacao from legendary gastronomy critic Ignacio Medina. He explained the history of cocoa, which is cultivated from the seeds of pocha fruit from the cacao tree, native to the tropical regions in Central and South America. Cacao belongs to the Theobroma genus, which in greek means food of the gods. The Mayans held an annual festival to honor their them, an event that included animal sacrifices and offerings of cacao. Nowadays, we only use cacao to make delicious chocolate.
But as Ignacio Medina explained, not all cacao beans are created equal. There are three main types of cacao used to make chocolate: the most lauded and rare cacao is Criollo, which is less bitter and more aromatic than other beans. A famous variety of Criollo is the white Porcelana cacao bean, which is a genetically pure strain of Criollo. The most common cacao bean is the Forastero, whose trees are more robust than Criollo, resulting in cheaper cacao beans. The third cacao is Trinitario, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero.
Ignacio then described Peru’s influence on the booming cocoa industry. Although Peru only amounts for a small share the world’s cacao production in part due to past economic and social problems, Peruvian cacao beans have recently caught the attention of the world's chocolate producers. The excitement surrounds pure Nacional cacao, the ultimate single-origin cacao bean. Nacional, originally from Ecuador and considered extinct, has been rediscovered and given the name Fortunato no. 4, as it was found in the fourth tree marked in Fortunato Colala’s farm. Fortunato No. 4 chocolate exhibits delicate, rare and complex flavors of fruit, flowers, nuts and coffee. The interest in Nacional boomed when Anthony Bourdain went on an expedition to find the rare Nacional cacao trees in an episode of Parts Unknown. Over the past few years, other new varieties of native cacao have been discovered by isolated indigenous communities in Peru.
For the tasting, Ignacio brought four different chocolates. He explained that while trying the chocolate, much like a fine wine, one experiences three different phases of flavor and aroma. At the beginning one can appreciate the light aromas of fruit and flowers, then on the mid palate, some spices and dry fruit, and finally for the finish, roasted dried fruits, wood and strong spices. All four chocolates were interesting and helped me gain a much greater appreciation for the diverse cacao beans and chocolate making techniques.
To top off the evening was Daniel Canzian’s chocolate dessert, not yet on the menu at his restaurant. Visually, the spherical chocolate creation reminds you of a (golden) tomato cut in half. The chocolate shell was made of Fortunato No. 4 and filled with chocolate mousse, topped with delicious Peruvian lucuma. I am normally not a fan of dessert, but Daniel knocked it out of the park with this one. I must come back to try his other inventive dishes!