Soconusco (Chiapas), the chocolate in its Garden of Eden
Is Soconusco, a region of Chiapas on the border with Guatemala, the cradle of chocolate? This is where the famous criollos cocoa trees rise in the shade of the huge Ceibas. According to experts, they produce the best chocolate in the world. We are in the land of the Olmecs and the Mayans. They have offered humanity this chocolate, a treasure from the dawn of time. Moreover, what other archaeological site in Mexico than that of Izapa (suburb of Tapachula) is to be found in the middle of cocoa trees? Everywhere, nature is grand and lush. It is between the Tacana (4200 m altitude), the highest volcano in Central America and the impressive mangroves of La Encrucijada on the Pacific Ocean : a maze of lagoons, canals, estuaries and beaches : in a plant and animal world where trees with their impressive roots rise 40 m above the water. The only means of transport, the lanchas to approach the islands where the seeds of native cocoas (criollos) grow twice as fast as normal. So let’s follow these planters who are fighting to save their criollos, to preserve this unique, equitable and exemplary biodiversity. For example, they managed to identify their historic cocoa trees and use them for growing.
Doña Demetria, La Pasionaria of Criollo
And above all, you will meet the woman who embodies this struggle, Demetria Gutiérrez. You will see her at home and on her plantation, with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Doña Demetria, La Pasionaria of Criollo produces an exceptional organic cocoa near the town of Alvaro Obregon, municipality of Tapachula.
Soconusco, the very roots of chocolate
It is an incredible journey that will take us to the very roots of chocolate; in search of cocoa farmers who are still in the same spot of the the first cocoa trees cultivated by man. These few days spent in Soconusco, on the border of Guatemala (extreme southwest of Mexico in the state of Chiapas), were an opportunity to meet the latest planters. They are now fighting to save a treasure of humanity: their criollos cocoa farmers (native white bean cocoa) in the face of deforestation. Because here, in this tropical forest, in the shade of the big trees, everything is done to please them, a warm and humid climate, volcanic and alluvial soils, temperatures that never drop below 16 degrees.
Meet the families of planters
In Soconusco, the Criollo cocoa plantations cover the municipalities of Tuzanton, Huehuton, Mazation, Tapachula and Tuxtla Chico, including those located in the archaeological area of Izapa, where there is historical evidence that the izapeos were the first consumers of chocolate.
As a guide, we have Don Rubiel. Contact is immediate. He is a planter but his job is also to control the plantations, give advice, encourage… Later we’ll meet his family. They live completely isolated among banana and mango trees, not far from the sea. At our disposal, the CASFA pick-up truck running the Red Maya (Organizaciones Orgànicas), The oldest and most reputable organic cooperative in Soconusco. It brings together 119 small cocoa producers under the organic label; families with an average of ten hectares and clinging passionately to their criollos.
The archaeological site of Izapa, at the genesis of cocoa
Don Rubiel is a quiet man. When he speaks, it is a whisper. He will lead us everywhere, to the end of impossible paths, crossing ford arroyos swollen by the first rains to his friends, all families of planters. We will leave from Tapachula (the visit of the Chocolate Museum is a must), capital of the province (state of Chiapas). Izapa is nearby. At the end of the road is Guatemala. At the end of the afternoon, the site is deserted but what a spectacle when the first torrential rains of the season will frighten thousands of birds in a gigantic ballet over the ruins.
Izapa nestled in the heart of cocoa plantations is still very mysterious. Its origin is mixed-zoque, a civilization that links two of the greatest cultures of Mesoamerica: the Olmecs and the Maya. It is located 800 years before and 50 AD. Unbelievable, everything here seems to be under the sign of chocolate! The Mayan glyph of cocoa seen here, according to Popol Vuh*, is represented in the form of two twin fish accrediting the age of the ceremonial and social use of cocoa. Even more disturbing, there is also the glyph of a catfish reading Kakawa or cocoa and further, the representation of a pod barely visible because of erosion. Thanks to the analysis of theobromine residues of terracotta mokayas vases found north of Izapa, it is possible to date the consumption of cocoa-based beverages as early as 1900 BC (at the dawn of civilization).
*Creation of the World narrated by the Popol Vuh of the Maya-Quiches
On the sides of Tacana, cocoa trees returned to the wild
Heading towards the fertile swathes of Tacana pierced by large villages, thousands of hectares of coffee trees can be discovered as far as the eye can see. And in the distance, more than 4000 m above the Pacific, stands the Tacana, giant of Chiapas, roof of Central America, a volcano still active (last eruption in 1986) that was the revered mountain of the Maya (Casa del fuego). At his feet, criss-crossed from all sides of springs and rios, still grow the forest of cocoas returned to the wild; the very people my friend, Valentine Tibère, a world chocolate specialist, helped to bring Soconusco’s planters* to life more than 15 years ago.
*Old Aztec province called Xoconocho (Soconusco) whose village of Cacahuatan, at the foot of the volcano means in nahualt, place of cocoa.
Doña Demetria, La pasionaria of Criollo
It was probably our meeting with Demetria, owner of the Finca El Paraiso in Alvaro Obregon, near Tapachula, that was the most striking; a very old lady with a beautiful hieratic face exuding incredible energy. She welcomes us at home in her garden, surrounded by her children, a multitude of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and amazing animals like this otter of a few months, recovered abandoned on the banks of the Coatan Rio.
Demetria for more than 60 years has been fighting all the battles to defend her land and her cocoa farmers. With her and her son David, now President of the Soconusco Cocoa Farmers Association, we join her 10-hectare plantation of Criollos surrounded by banana trees; a land that they have always been able to defend from developers. That morning, she had to open the floodgates to irrigate her precious trees. As she wades barefoot we listen to her tell the story of her criollos, which grow in the shade of huge ceibas, among the flowers and all the biodiversity that she has maintained so well during her long life.
Ah, I forgot! Its eponymous dark chocolate bar (Demetria), Finca “El Paraso” 71% cocoa, was awarded the silver medal in 2017 by The Academy of Chocolate Awards (UK).
The San José chocolateria, Chiapas’ first chocolate factory
In the region of Mazatan, at the end of a barely carriageable track, 44 km from Tapachula, here is our reward, the visit of the famous chocoleria San José, the first chocolate factory in Chiapas founded in 2002 and which buys its cocoa from the planters of Mazaton, Tapachula, Villa Comalttlon. Bernadina Cruz, founder and president of the Cooperative Chocolates Finos San José is waiting for us in her workshop full of delicious smells. This is the perfect opportunity to taste its chocolate bars and its famous tamal sweet version, with rice flour, filled with almonds, chocolate, corn paste (masa), all spicy (but not too much, to be specified!) and wrapped in a banana leaf (a delight!).
The Best Cacao del Xoconuzco in the world
The experts are formal, the Cacao del Xoconuzco gives today, the best chocolate in the world. Two reasons: its great finesse and incomparable aromas. It is the fruit of the native criollos (criollo nativo in Spanish) still cultivated since the Mokayas, the Olmecs* and then the Maya. They grew there, 4000 years ago, along the Suchiate River, on the border with Guatemala; a cocoa with surprisingly fresh and sticky pulp, very nutritious with a floral taste and a nutty fragrance. It is so succulent that they make it into ice pops or they add water and make “cocoa honey”.
*The Olmecs are considered to be at the origin of all civilizations that have emerged in Central America, including the Mayans and Aztecs. Thus, they began to settle here in the region of Soconusco about 1500 BC. Before them, the Mokayas, pre-Mayan civilization or corn people in the mix-zoque language they probably spoke. They lived on Tacana at that time.
How do I recognize a criollo (or nativo)?
To recognize a criollo, nothing could be simpler! His pods range from jade green to blood red. Once opened, they reveal about twenty white or pink seeds (beans), a sign of a criollo of the highest quality. It is better understood that it was the cocoa of Moctezuma, the last Aztec emperor to the point of sending his army to Soconusco to supply it. In the Mayan area, cocoa beans were often used by local traders to calculate the quantities or prices of goods. Today, experts say, Criollo du Soconusco is the finest variety of noble cocoas. Low acid, very weakly bitter, this variety develops intense, deep, subtle aromas and tastes (a very sweet cocoa taste, pronounced secondary aromas reminiscent of nuts, caramel, blueberries or tobacco). In addition, chocolate from criollo concentrates a strong antioxidant power. Production per hectare is now 200 kilos on the Soconusco plantations. The goal is to reach the ton.
The criollo (native cocoa tree) in danger
Extensive farming, the use of agrochemicals, hybridization of indigenous seeds, among others, have been the main threats to cocoa produced in Soconusco, a crop that represents one of the main economic activities of this region of Chiapas State.This variety, with its low production potential, had all but disappeared due in part to the Mexican government, which led to massive hybridizations in 1945 and 1980. Look, Rubiel tells us, everywhere we rip our areas of criollos to plant “industrial”: pineapple, soy, cane, oil palms, plus the damage of fungi, rust, moniliosis of cocoa (mushroom)… We will disappear if nothing is done! Fortunately, a handful of the world’s greatest chocolatiers have taken up the cause for these planters, including Stéphane Bonnat, master chocolatier in Voiron, France. For him, no doubt, the Cacao Real of Soconusco (brand he has registered) is the best in the world. An excellent cocoa expresses it, he says, 8 or 9 different flavors. With Soconusco cocoa, you sometimes exceed ten flavors. It is therefore without hesitation that every year he buys the beans from the small producers of Soconusco (all working in organic) at a price well above the normal price of cocoa.
CASFA (Centro de Agroecologa San Francisco de Ass) in Tapachula created and directed by Jorge Aguilar Reyna. The cooperative also sells coffee, various tropical fruits and develops ecotourism.
The high mangroves of La Encrucijada
Last stop in one of the most beautiful places of Soconusco, where reigns in total confusion the land and the sea. Leaving Tapachula, we reach from the northwest the city of Acapatahua, the gateway to the high mangroves of La Encrucijada on the shores of the Pacific. They are the highest in Mexico: a maze of lagoons, canals, estuaries, beaches in a plant and animal world where trees with their impressive roots rise 40 m above the water. The only means of transport, the lanchas to approach the islands of La Palma and El Campon, a kind of garden of Eden where the seeds of native cocoas (criollos) grow twice as fast as normal. But it’s another journey!
The La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve is another site near Tapachula that covers 1400 km2. It is made up of coastal lagoons, swamps and sand banks. It also has the highest mangroves in the country with 30 meters above sea level, as well as a flooded rainforest during the rainy season. This ecosystem is of paramount importance to migratory birds that come to breed there. Jaguar, spider monkey, turtle, crocodile, boa constrictor populate this jungle in quantity.
The extraordinary history of Soconusco chocolate
First of all, where does the word chocolate come from? For the first time, the word chocolate appeared in a Spanish book by Joseph de Acosta dating from 1590. Chocolate, like many other words ending in ate would come from nahuatl (Aztec): xococ (sour) and atl (water). Originally, the Aztecs prepared a fermented cocoa and corn drink (acid) in water. Finally, it is in memory of the legend of Quetzalcoatl*, that Carl Von Linné named the cocoa tree Theobroma cacao L., “theos” meaning god in Greek, “broma” beverage.
*In the ancient Toltec city of Tollan (northern Mexico) reigned Quetzalcoatl, the bearded god with an ugly face and long head, represented by a feathered snake. He was also a gardener from paradise, which allowed him to offer man the cocoa tree.
A drink for ceremonial use
They were mainly used to develop a drink for ceremonial and social use served during the greatest celebrations: victories, alliances, weddings or especially during the funeral ceremonies always grandiose (for proof, these chemical analyses carried out in a tomb Maya Rao Azul in Guatemala, which reveals the presence of cocoa)… And when the Spanish arrived, quite naturally, these precious beans (or seeds) brought back by Cortès in 1528, were reserved for the King of Spain (Cacao real de Soconusco); 1000 seeds were then equal to 3 gold ducats.
The great Cervantes, governor of Soconusco?
Is it known that the province of Soconusco was so rich thanks in particular to cocoa production that the famous writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616), author of Quixote de La Mancha (El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha) applied for the post of governor (Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas!).
What cocoa drinks to drink at Soconusco?
In addition to cocoa honey, water chocolate (sometimes with added peanut powder) or pozol (less common than inTabasco), you can also enjoy, in restaurants and planters, pinol that is drunk frozen and sparkling. It is made from grilled corn flour, cocoa and pataxte*, all flavoured with grated sapote kernel with an almond flavour (there is also a black sapote with a very pronounced chocolate taste that Mexicans consume raw). Cinnamon is a colonial addition. Finally, a beautiful orange-red color, the tascalate is always made from cocoa and corn, but in the form of tortillas melted in hot water, which gives it a biscuity flavor. It also includes fresh rocou paste (Bixa orellana), with a slightly tangy and spicy taste (Valentine Tibère)
*The pataxe (Theobroma bicolor) is a cousin of the cocoa tree that has never had the international career of the criollo. It is distinguished by its large pods filled with seeds arranged in stars. It is called by the Mayans: Balamte (the jaguar tree). Today, planters say it plays a crucial pollinating role in maintaining the criollo character of cocoa trees. Its salted and toasted seeds are as good as almonds or cashews that are served as an aperitif.
Chocolate, more than 800 volatile molecules
Cocoa is thought to have more than 800 volatile molecules that are not all known or fragrant. These are mainly esters, alcohols and acids that produce the floral notes characteristic of certain cocoa varieties. This is the case, for example, of the gene that synthesizes linalol (alcohol) and is represented by 7 copies in the genome of the criollo cocoa tree. It is also interesting to know that the very first deciphering of the cocoa tree genome made in 2010 was made from a variety of criollo cocoa tree collected in Belize, and which could be a descendant of the first cocoa trees domesticated by the Maya more than 3000 years ago. This variety, let’s remember, is the origin of a chocolate of the highest quality classified among fine chocolates.
Latest news on Soconusco cocoa trees
They cover about 11,500 hectares concentrated in the municipalities of Huehueton, Mazaton, Tuxtla Chico, Cacahuatan, Tapachula and Huixtla. Cocoa is harvested from October to December and from March to April. A cocoa plantation can remain productive for 25 to 30 years. The age of today’s cocoa plantations is probably one of the reasons for the decline of its cultivation. It is therefore urgent today that plantations be renewed.
Very big plant health problems
Cocoa has now lost about 10,000 ha in Soconusco over the past 15 years. However, in 2018, expectations are pretty good for the 400 or so producers who remain. Exports are expected to exceed 100 tonnes, mainly to Spain and France. However, cocoa cultivation can be considered to be in decline mainly for plant health problems and in particular the disease commonly called the moniliasis del cocoa (Moniliophthora). This is the main factor affecting the survival of cocoa and its biodiversity. This disease destroys production, makes its treatment unprofitable and encourages farmers to abandon their plantations. Currently, Mexico is the most affected country since the arrival of the disease in 2005. Production fell by almost 60%. In 2013, due to the high temperatures recorded, production was affected by 70%.
CASFA, for the defense of planters and criollo
CASFA (Centro de Agroecologa San Francisco de Ass) in Tapachula was created and is directed by Jorge Aguilar Reyna. Since 2004, CASFA has been running the Rescuing Royal Cocoa program in the Soconusco region, a program that aims to preserve all its nutritional and environmental qualities and provide farmers with food and economic independence. The other objective set by CASFA is the genetic improvement of criollo, cocoa that develops an aroma with specific notes of caramel, hazelnut and honey.
Jorge Aguilar Reyna President of CASFA (Centro de Agroecologa San Francisco de Asis) in Tapachula. Its goal is over the next 10 years to recover at least 10,000 hectares currently used for livestock and intensive agriculture to plant criollo cocoa.
The 3 commercial types of cocoa
Cocoa farmers whose fruit is called pods connected to the trunk or branches by a short (sacredly solid) stalk have been divided into three groups by the cocoa industry.
1/Criollos (“indigenous natives” in Spanish) have white seeds, known as “clear breaks.” They are grown in the mixed-zoque and Mayan area (Mexico and Central America) as well as in South America (Venezuela, Colombia, Peru). It accounts for just 3% of world production. Their reputation comes from their delicacy and the power of their aromas
2/Forasteros, foreign to the first cocoa farmers grown at the time of the discovery of America, have dark purple seeds. They are more bitter, less aromatic and more ordinary. They account for the bulk of world production (75-80%).
3/More or less purple seed trinitarios depending on their heredity are hybrids of criollos and forasteros that appeared in the 18th century on the island of Trinidad (Caribbean). They combine the aromatic qualities of criollos with a certain robustness transmitted by forasteros (20% of world production).
The province of Soconusco (State of Chiapas) is in the extreme southwest of Mexico, on the border with Guatemala. Mexico City is 876 km away, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital of the state of Chiapas at 218 km.
How do I get there?
Several daily flights connect Mexico City to Tapachula. Best offers flights start at 1800 MXN (70 €), a return ticket. From San Cristobal or Tuxla, OCC buses provide several daily routes.
Where to stay?
In Tapachula: Hotel San Francisco Calle Central Sur Oriente 94, Centro, 30700 Tapachula de Cerdova y Ordoez (Telephone: ’52 962 620 1000). Room for 2 (including a hearty breakfast): 1200 MXN (52 €).
A big thank you to Doña Demetria, the pasionaria of Criollo and all the planters in this beautiful region of Soconusco who received us so warmly at home; to Don Rubiel our guide and to Jorge Aguilar Reyna, Director of the San Francisco Center for Agroecology in Asis (Casfa). A very special thank you to Valentine Tibère, the world’s leading chocolate specialist who was the first to rediscover the immense potential of Soconusco’s cocoa trees. Alongside Demetria, two of my daughters, the eldest Tess has lived in San Cristobal in Chiapas for more than 10 years and the youngest, Erin, now 19, in a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Nanterre in Paris.
(Translated by Lynn Jennings Collombet)