There’s never been a better time to be a chocolate lover. Raw materials are selected and processed with more care, and the fine chocolate market for both plain and flavored bars has blossomed. Now, a new movement is rediscovering cacoa varieties (chocolate’s plant source) long thought extinct. Several different intrepid chocolate pioneers have been rooting around the tropics and testing the genetics of promising old and often abandoned cacao plants. When they find something distinct and delicious they isolate it for production.
One of these people is a Chicagoan named Jerry Toth, a rainforest preservationist in Ecuador. Working with local farmers, Toth stumbled across Ecuadoran Nacional, a strain of cacao that was prized for its natural sweetness more than 100 years ago. It had been decimated by disease, then hybridized with other more hearty varieties. Until recently it was generally assumed that 100 percent Nacional was extinct.
In a remote valley called Piedra de Plata, Toth’s group found some singular trees, and made some chocolate from the pods. The distinct qualities led them to tag the trees and take samples for genetic testing. A number of samples were 100 percent Nacional. Imagine if someone discovered a hidden valley that was home to a herd of cattle untouched as they reproduced for 100 years—cattle long believed to be extinct?
The cultivation has two purposes: first to make chocolate and second to share plants with others, once the crop is established.
To’ak is the brand name. Available bars change depending on the season. Releases tend to be small, and they hold some of the product for aging. Quality has improved greatly since I first tasted them three years ago. Broadly speaking, you can expect them to be fruity—especially dark fruit and raspberry—and sweeter than expected for the cacao content (most hover around 80 percent; all contain only cacao and cane sugar). All come in a handsome locally made wooden box with a booklet on the project and tweezers for tasting. Each bar has a whole cacao bean fixed to its center, which is a fun way to taste the raw material. And at $270 for a 50-gram bar, every comment on them leads with some form of “most expensive chocolate ever.”
The purity movement among connoisseurs that shuns vanilla in coffee, single-malt cocktails and flavored cigars notwithstanding, Toth et al. are running some compelling experiments. Lozenges of the chocolate were dumped into a Laphroaig cask and aged for two years, then remelted and molded into bars. It’s kind of dazzling. There’s a filigree of smoky savory whisky over a fruity and honeyed bar. The chocolate flavor is direct, but the whisky and smoke gain on the finish with the effect of being like a sip after a bite. You know you’re in Islay, and a long way from booze-filled bonbons.