Chocolate Industry

The Endangered Chocolate Hunt in the Amazon Rainforest

Nearly 500 years after the legend of El Dorado lured the Spanish conquistadors to the South American rainforest, the hunt for Amazon treasure is still going strong. However, today’s adventurers are not looking for ancient cities or golden empires. The treasure they are looking for is confirmed to be real and it is available for purchase at the bar.

The quest for endangered wild cacao in the Amazon rainforest is the subject of a new podcast from Kaleidescope, a company co-founded by Mental Floss co-founder Mangesh Hattikudur. In Obsessions: Wild Chocolate, host Rowan Jacobson follows intrepid bean hunters through some of the most dangerous places on earth in search of the ultra-rare ingredient. To get there, they must first avoid cocaine dealers, flash floods, and giant anacondas.

“You can make a living doing it if everything goes well, but you’re taking crazy risks doing it,” Jacobson told Mental Floss. “A million things can go wrong and always go wrong.”

For many people who have tasted chocolate made from wild cocoa, the reward is worth the risk. Although the crop originated in South America, two-thirds of the cocoa produced today is grown in West Africa. Commercial strains have been bred for maximum yield and the subtle flavor nuances have been lost over the centuries. This means that for people who grew up eating Hershey’s, Amazonian Wild Chocolate is more than a fancier version of what they’re used to, it’s something entirely new.

“There are these flavors that you don’t find in normal chocolate,” Jacobson says. “It tastes like dried fruits, fresh fruits and flowers, some of which are really floral. Almost a bit like pipe smoke. Really interesting flavors.

Chocolate connoisseurs pay more than the complexity when they buy a $55 wild chocolate bar. Considering the scarcity of cocoa beans and what it takes to harvest them, this price is a bargain.

Turning the ingredient into a salable product only became possible a few decades ago, as the world of artisanal chocolate became mainstream and more and more consumers were willing to pay more than $5 for a candy bar. . At that time, wild chocolate was considered by many to be extinct. Its existence was only known to a handful of scientists and people who lived in the rainforests where it grew.

    Ecuador, Amazon basin, near Coca, rainforest, cocoa beans drying.

Cocoa beans drying in the Amazon basin. / Wolfgang Kaehler/GettyImages

German cocoa hunter Volker Lehmann was one of the first to give these obscure plants a global platform. After learning that locals had been harvesting and processing wild cocoa in remote areas of Bolivia for hundreds of years, he pulled the product out of the jungle and processed it using Swiss techniques. The result was an artisanal chocolate bar that set the culinary world on fire.

As Jacobson says, “Then the hunt was on.”

Today, more and more people are vying to collect the botanical riches of the Amazon and turn them into something delicious. One of them is Luisa Abram, a Brazilian chocolatier featured on Jacobson’s podcast. Part Willy Wonka and part Indiana Jones, Abram began walking through the rainforest to track down wild chocolate in 2014. She returned from that first trip with nearly 45 pounds of cocoa beans that she had already dried and fermented to avoid decomposition (an impressive feat). in a location that can see 12 feet of precipitation per year). After several months of experimentation, she had developed a chocolate formula that she was proud to share with the world, and today her company, Luisa Abram Chocolate, exports to seven countries outside of Brazil.

Turning an ingredient that few people have tasted into a commercial good is one of the company’s challenges. Because these wild cocoa varieties cannot be grown, anyone working with them must be mindful of sustainability. Abram achieves this by working with indigenous communities deeply rooted in the plant’s native environment. Local families who help harvest the cocoa receive a portion of the profits, giving them an incentive to protect the forest where it grows.

The agricultural industry is one of the biggest threats to the rainforest. Today, about 80% of deforested land in the Amazon Basin is used for livestock farming. But as Abram’s work shows, locals don’t necessarily have to choose between conserving the rainforest and protecting their livelihoods.

“Turns out it’s actually a really cool way to prevent deforestation,” Jacobson says. “Because this cocoa that grows in the jungle is totally wild, it kind of gives people a way to make a living from a living forest rather than cutting it down for cattle ranches.”

There are many good reasons to keep rainforests alive; preservation of exotic chocolate is just a delicious perk.

To agree here each week for new episodes of OBSESSIONS: Wild Chocolate.