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“We’re creating a map of flavors,” says Iván Murrugarra, as we drive from Ollantaytambo and through the Andes, passing beneath Nevado Veronica before descending down to the high jungles of Quillabamba, where a native variety of cacao called chuncho is grown.
Murrugarra, a chocolate maker and cacao researcher, is working with Mater Iniciativa at Mil Centro in Moray to isolate and identify the individual varietals of chuncho. They have already reduced what were believed to be 11 zones of cacao production to seven, but the process will take years.
Chuncho is more like a collection of Alto Amazonas Forastero varieties, the group date back to Machiguenga communities centuries ago, if not longer. There’s some chuncho found in Puerto Maldonado and in the Ayacucho area too, but the steep hills around Quillabamba is where the majority is grown.
In Piura, where Murrugarra often works with his chocolate company Magia Piura, soil dictates the flavor of the cacao, he tells me. In Quillabamba it’s different. The soil is mostly the same, but the varietals have evolved within individual micro-climates and the difference is extraordinary. He has been helping educate farmers to help produce better cacao and the result is less bitter and a new spectrum of fruits and flowers is being revealed.
When we reach the processing plant in Quillabamba, we taste seeds drying in the sun. There’s an immediate, overwhelming fruitiness to them, passionfruit mostly, but then a subtle floral flavor fill your tastebuds. When they dry more the fruit will calm and the floral flavors will remain, Murrugarra says.
Most of the chuncho grown in southern Peru is actually a hybrid, though in Quillabamba these varietals mostly remain pure. The fruits and beans tend to be small, though they lack bitterness and have a high fat content. The plants tend to be very productive and disease resistant.
Murrugarra has been trying to shift the focus in the growing and production of chuncho cacao towards quality. “Growers pick a bit too late,” he says, “so it starts to ferment in the shell.” There has been a lack of formal education in the process and adhering to some general guidelines is already proving results. Farmers are beginning to see how they can attract buyers beyond local markets and earn sustainable incomes.
In Piura in northern Peru, Murrugarra is considered one of the premier cacao experts, often working with rare white cacao that’s found nowhere else for his label Magia Piura. In the Cusco area, he has already produced a chocolate bar at Mil Centro, made from 100 percent chuncho cacao.
At Miraflores, one of the cacao zones of Quillabamba, there’s more altitude and more of a slope than some of the other locations that chuncho is growing. There’s avocado, coca, and yuca growing amidst the trees and boulders. It’s the end of harvest and there are piles of black shells scattered around the forest. Two women are cutting open the fruit with machetes, picking out the seeds with the mucilage. It will get sent to the plant in town to ferment.
“Every fruit is distinct,” says Eduardo, one of the growers Murrugarra is working with, in an area known as Echerate. “Each one has a different flavor.” He has around 200 cacao plants and he claims some are more than a century old. He says the fruits have “cáscara de huevo,” shells that break like an egg. They’re ripe and ready.