The Rise and Fall of the Criollo Empire

Venezuela has a reputation for producing some of the most pure and best tasting chocolates. This reputation stems from Venezuela’s long history of growing the Criollo type of chocolate, a strain of chocolate that was consumed by both new world and old world royalty (Coe and Coe). Today, Criollo chocolate makes up only five percent of world production of chocolate, a surprisingly small amount given the quality of the Criollo beans (Coe and Coe). Criollo chocolate production has declined since the discovery of chocolate due to its susceptibility to disease and the increased demand for mass production of chocolate.

When Spanish explorers arrived in Venezuela in the 16th century, they found an especially pure form of Criollo chocolate called Porcelana (Presilla). The Porcelana contains an almost perfectly white cotyledon- a part of the seed that is processed into cacao nibs- which gives it a better aroma and taste (Presilla). The Aztecs introduced Francisco Hernandez in the 1500s to a variety of chocolates, all Criollo, and the Spanish royalty became enamored with it (Coe and Coe). Thus, Criollo chocolate earned a reputation among European royalty as the finest chocolate, the only kind fit to be consumed by the elite.

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The image above is an older label for Venezuelan chocolate company, El Rey. One can clearly see the connection between Venezuelan Criollo chocolate and royalty, signifying the perceived quality of the Criollo chocolate.

When chocolate first came to Europe, it was consumed as a drink, and quality mattered (Presilla). While Europeans did not understand the terms Criollo and Forestero, a lesser quality chocolate, they knew where the chocolate came from and how that affected the quality of the beans (Presilla). One of the most sought after chocolates was the cacao of the Chuao plantation of Venezuela (Presilla). This plantation grew pure Criollo chocolate which fetched a high price at market (Presilla). As new advances in processing chocolate came to be, the emphasis on quality chocolate declined, and so did the production of Criollo chocolate.

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Pictured is a wrapper for a chocolate bar Chuao, named after the legendary Venezuelan plantation that contained fine Criollo chocolate. The understanding that chocolate quality depends on location is still used to market fine chocolate today.

Advances in European chocolate processing removed the need for high quality chocolate beans. Conrad Van Houten  created a way to mechanically separate cacao butter from cacao liquor, which allowed chocolate manufactures to create solid chocolate (Presilla). This solid chocolate was not the product of rich additives and the whole chocolate, but a processed combination of cacao butter, cacao liquor and sugar, so the chocolate consumer could not taste the quality of the beans (Presilla). Van Houten also discovered how to reduce the acidity of low quality chocolate beans via an alkali treatment (Presilla).

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Pictured is a Mélangeur, which incorporates sugar with chocolate and creates a smooth product. One of the many innovations that created a more processed chocolate with lesser quality beans. These innovations in processing chocolate decreased the cost of chocolate and increased the demand. And as demand increased, so did the need to grow chocolate on a larger scale.

Growing cacao is a finicky business. Cacao is sensitive to heat, moisture, sunlight and incredibly susceptible to disease (Coe and Coe). Criollo chocolate is especially sensitive to disease, and whole plantations have been ravaged by one epidemic of witches’ broom or frosty pod (Presilla). After losing a Criollo plantation to disease, some farmers replaced Criollo with forestero chocolate. Forestero is a catch-all term for sturdier types of chocolate that are of lesser quality than Criollo chocolate (Presilla).

Today, around ninety percent of chocolate produced world-wide is Forestero chocolate, despite its poorer quality beans compared to Criollo chocolate (Coe and Coe). Changes in the way chocolate is consumed removed the need for high quality cacao beans, so producers were able to switch to a lower quality, more stable bean. Criollo chocolate is still sought after by high end chocolatiers, but gone are the days of Criollo’s rule.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House LLC, 2009.

Multimedia Sources: oldschool.png /photolist


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