Costa Rica was the first non-bulk cocoa-growing country that I remember. It was the story of the Rain Forest Alliance that got me thinking of chocolate outside of the West African landscape and seeing cocoa as a force of social and economic good. I owe a lot of the passion I have now to this 'origin' so it seems fitting to continue my exploration of chocolate-growing countries with a look at the past, present and future of this beautiful Central American country.
Like many pre-Columbian regions the area today known as Costa Rica used cocoa beans as currency, not least by the Chorotega peoples, and there is even talk of this continuing into the twentieth century - cocoa has played a very important economic and cultural part in the lives of Costa Ricans for millennia, including the Bribri peoples where the women of the tribes would create cocoa concoctions during rituals. Overtime, cacao was usurped by coffee as being the primary cash-crop and then banana became even more popular in the west.
As large agricultural enterprises saw opportunities to exploit the natural environment by introducing strains from Ecuador that put greater pressure on the present 'Criollo' the relative quality of the cacao available to the public diminished. And fine flavour cacao faced a further setback in the late 1970's with the arrival of the Monilia fungal disease, which had, until then, only affected Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. The result was that between 80% and 90% of the present cacao trees were lost or abandoned. There was some work done by CAIT produced more disease-resistant cacao, thanks to their gene banks of cacao, which altered that flavour profiles available to the origin.
Unlike Panama which has much of the cacao concentrated in one area, cocoa is produced in a number of areas, much like Venezuela. You can find it grown extensively in the Guanacaste, Alajuela, Talamanca, Cartago and Puntarenas regions.
When it comes to cacao verities from Costa Rica you are more likely to experience the Matina type which typically allows for earthen, tropical fruits and a touch of nutmeg. This is closer to the Amazonian cacao which, to my mind at least, cannot be classed as a truly fine flavour cacao (especially when compared to other varietals). That being said, Bryan has done a fantastic job with his Fruition Dark Milk, Ben has similarly produced an excellent dark with nibs from Upala and De Vries has created a fantastic 84%.
The other type you would expect to see in Costa Rica is the much generalised 'Criollo'. You may be able to find this on small-scale, family owned grounds such as the one run by Caribeans who do produce some great chocolate.
We're just about to go and try and source some locally produced chocolate, so hopefully we will have some reviews soon.
Image © TAM Costa Rica
Please also check out Maleku Chocolate for more interesting information about this origin.