Ecuador is among the top five biggest cacao producers in the world and home to the most rare and flavorful cacao variety, Nacional. The cultivation of Nacional cacao can be traced back 5,000 years ago in what is now the Zamora Chinchipe province in Ecuador.
Its beans are encased by shriveled yellow pods that typically take on an elongated form. This cacao variety gives off a rich, fragrant aroma. When made into chocolate, it tastes delicate, smooth, and seductively sweet.
Unfortunately, Nacional cacao is in danger of becoming gone for good.
Ecuador reached its peak popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s after it was integrated into the world economy as part of the cocoa trade. Europe became obsessed with chocolate, and European colonizers began planting Nacionals themselves.
But in 1916, a disease called frosty pod rot ravaged cacao trees across Ecuador. By 1919, it was thought that Nacional trees had been completely wiped off the face of the earth.
As a result, growers introduced new foreign and hybrid varieties in an effort to make their crops more resilient.
The beans produced from the new trees required less maintenance, were more resistant to disease, and generated higher yields. However, their flavor profile was nowhere near as complex as the Nacional variety.
At the beginning of the 2010s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an American chocolate company based in Peru discovered cacao trees in Peru that contained ancient Nacional DNA.
Local cacao farmers and activists are now working together to revitalize the population of the legendary Nacional trees. Growers in Ecuador have always been proud of Nacional’s legacy, but the hybrid cacao varieties are more fruitful and earn them more money.