The rare Ecuadorian cacao variety called “Nacional” traces its genetic lineage back at least 5,300 years, to the first known cacao trees domesticated by humanity. By the dawn of the 21st century, this famed variety was believed to be extinct. In the valley of Piedra de Plata, To’ak found old-growth cacao trees that have been confirmed by DNA tests to be 100% pure Nacional. They have since been designated Heirloom by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund.
Ecuador is the motherland of cacao. Archeologists have traced the origins of the cacao tree to Ecuador, where they found evidence of cacao domestication dating back at least 5,300 years among the Mayo-Chinchipe culture. Nacional cacao traces its genetic lineage back to these trees.
By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, Nacional was considered by many European chocolatiers the most coveted source of cacao in the world—prized for its floral aroma and complex flavor profile. This golden era of Ecuadorian cacao came to an end in 1916, when an outbreak of “Witches’ Broom” disease decimated the Nacional variety throughout the country.
Tracing the native ancestors of the modern Theobroma cacao population in Ecuador
Insight into the wild origin, migration and domestication history of the Ecuadorian Nacional cacao
Origen de la domesticación del cacao y su uso temprano en Ecuador
There is an old legend that has been handed down through Ecuadorian history. In the nineteenth century, a Swiss chocolatier was navigating the Guayas River in coastal Ecuador. During his voyage, he encountered a group of farmers transporting sacks of Nacional cacao that had an unusually rich and floral aroma. Naturally, the chocolatier asked the farmers where this cacao had come from. The farmers simply replied “arriba” (meaning “upriver”), and pointed in that direction. Subsequently, cacao grown along the upper tributaries of the Guayas river basin (namely, the watersheds of the Daule and Babahoyo rivers) became one of the most highly sought sources of cacao in European chocolate circles, and was given the name “Arriba.”
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, some experts believed that genetically pure Nacional cacao no longer existed. Our goal was to find it. The journey ultimately led us deep into the low-lying mountains of the famous “Arriba” cacao-growing region in the hinterlands of the province of Manabí, specifically to the valley of Piedra de Plata, which was disconnected by road from the rest of the country until the 1990s.
As we started to spend more time in Piedra de Plata, we built a relationship with the men and women who organically grow and harvest cacao on small family farms in what has since become a highly-revered appellation. With a small group of these cacao growers, we formed a partnership. To’ak chocolate is sourced exclusively from cacao pods that match the morphological and color profile of heirloom Nacional cacao referenced from DNA testing. Our cacao was awarded the Heirloom designation from the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund.