Saving Chocolate


In 1997 I was backpacking deep in the rainforest of Costa Rica’s Parque Nacional Corcovado, one of the most breathtaking places I have had the good fortune to explore. On this trip I was traveling with a local guide who, for much of our journey, led us on a path that only he could see. I recall vines as thick as my leg, a tiny yet highly poisonous green snake curled up tightly on a single small leaf, a family of monkeys crossing a river by leaping effortlessly from tree to tree, a sloth curled up high in the canopy, and colorful toucans and macaws passing by, among so many other incredible memories.

It was also on that trip that I was introduced to the cacao plant for the first time. In the thick of the rainforest, the guide stepped off his trail, and walked us over to the tree. He cut open a bright leathery pod, and revealed the cacao beans cased in their fruity pulp. A chocoholic all my life, it was fascinating to hold a cacao pod, the source of so many tasty treats.

I had no idea at the time that the world was running low on chocolate, that demand was far outpacing supply. I’ve since learned that environmental factors including diseases, and economic factors such as competing crops, have pushed the chocolate industry to pursue new breeds of cacao. It’s an intriguing story of trade-offs between quality and quantity, of breeding varieties that are not only resistant to diseases such as frosty pod and witches’ broom, but that also deliver the flavors that the world so craves.

One of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Planet Money, produced an entertaining show on this topic that I recommend, called The Chocolate Curse. It’s interesting and fun; check it out.

The first cacao plant I was introduced to, years ago on a magical trip through the rainforest, held the key to a rich story I had always taken for granted whenever I’d taken a bite of chocolate. I’m eager to learn more about the bean’s journey, from cacao pod to chocolate. I’d also like to better understand the plant’s historical origins, and how it has spread throughout the globe. Ultimately, I’m curious to learn more about how the recent environmental and economic factors have influenced the business strategies in the modern chocolate market.

If you have any favorite resources to recommend on this topic, please share!