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The Origins of Nacional—Ecuador's Rare Chocolate Variety

For World Chocolate Day, we pay a visit to a chocolate farm in Ecuador and dive into the history of the rare chocolate variety Nacional.

July 6, 2022

“The disease was called la escoba de bruja, which means “the witch’s broom”, and it decimated the cacao business,” says the director of Haciendo El Castillo, a chocolate plantation farm located about an hour west of Guayaquil in Ecuador. He hands out a welcome glass of cocoa juice and starts walking through the lush forest filled with mango trees, papaya trees and of course, cacao trees.

The origin of Ecuador’s chocolate can be traced back to over 5,000 years ago, when the Mayo-Chinchipe people lived in the western Amazonian highlands that was one day to become Ecuador. Centuries later, Ecuador had an abundance of cacao farms that produced a rare cacao variety called Nacional. But in the 1920s, a fungus called the witch’s broom swept through the land, killing cacao trees and reducing chocolate production by 77%, and destroying the cacao business in its wake.

Photo: Ean Mulligan

One day, in the 1960s, a plant scientist named Homero Castro, or Don Homero, visited a family-owned cacao farm and declared that he would put a stop to the curse by creating a hybrid of a nacional tree and another type of cacao tree to revive the cacao business. He traveled the world in search of the perfect seed, and 12 years later he came back to the family-owned farm claiming he had found the perfect hybrid: the CCN51. CC for Colección Castro, Naranjal for where he was from, and 51 for the number of times it had taken him to finally get the right hybrid.

The tree was much smaller in comparison to other cacao trees but it was resistant to fungal diseases, weather, and produced ten times as much chocolate. However, the chocolate tasted like acidic dirt, and companies refused to buy it. Don Homero passed away believing that his life’s work had failed.

Nacional tree | Photo: Ean Mulligan

Eventually, big companies like Nestle and Mars decided to make chocolate using a mix of CCN51 and other beans, thinking that no one would be able to taste the dirt amongst the sugar and other added flavours that go into their chocolate. All candy chocolate in supermarkets these days have some form of CCN51 in them.

Finding 100% pure Nacional chocolate is extremely rare, as the cacao tree is on the brink of extinction with only about 15 Nacional trees left as of 2013. Nacional is the source of the Arriba cacao variety and the cacao fino de aroma that it produces represents only 5% of the cacao production in the entire world, making it a sought-after variety by chocolate connoisseurs. It produces fruity and floral aromas, almost lychee-like.

Photo: Ean Mulligan

Now, when visiting Ecuador, you will find the two types of trees—the Nacional trees that produce yellow cacao beans and the CCN51 that produce red cacao beans.

“The chocolate business in Ecuador has had its up and down,” the director says, “but it’s part of our history and heritage and we are proud to have such a unique variety here in our country.”