Arriba Nacional is one of the most beloved types of cacao; favored by chocolate makers and cacao enthusiasts alike. It is endemic to Ecuador, and is a source of pride for Ecuadorian farmers. Here we get to know this delicate strain of cacao through its history and cultural context.
Urban legend surrounding the origin of the Ecuadorian cacao known as, Arriba Nacional has its roots in the early days of cacao trade. When producers were asked where their cacao was from the answer was always "Cacao de Arriba" which translates to "from up the river". Eventually this evolved to Cacao de Arriba Nacional and subsequently Arriba Nacional. Arriba Nacional is known what's known as a criollo strain. Criollo cacao (criollo translates to "native" in Spanish, and is often used in relation to native strains of cacao) is praised as the most flavorful cacao in the world; some even say it's the healthiest.
"Cacao was traditionally classified into two major groups: Criollo and Forastero (Cheesman 1944). Criollo cacao was cultivated by pre-Columbian people from Mesoamerica, where it was introduced from southwestern Venezuela and northeastern Colombia, and has a narrow genetic background as the result of a single process of domestication after being separated from its most ancestral closely related population (Cornejo et al. 2018; Motamayor et al. 2002). Criollo beans are superior in quality but the trees are susceptible to diseases (Cuatrecasas 1964). Forastero refers to all other forms of cacao, and inherently has a more diverse genetic background" [APSJournals]
The word nacional, stems from the sense of pride with which Ecuadorians treat and uphold their national variety of Cacao. Recent findings from a study of the cacao genome show cacao was first domesticated in the Amazonian basin, an area of the Amazon that includes Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. By looking at the Cacao gene samples extracted from various parts of Latin America, geneticists have been able to determine where and when cacao was first domesticated. The study concluded that cacao originates in the Amazonian basin and was traded north through the Pacific routes to modern-day Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. Arriba Nacional is believed to be one of the aboriginal strains and one of the first to be domesticated.
The superior quality and taste of Ecuadorian cacao and its criollo strains became well-known around the world. As a result, Ecuador evolved into one of the largest producers and exporters for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. However, like all crops, cacao is subject to pests and disease. The chances of a crop falling victim to the elements increases with crop size. Criollo is particularly delicate, making it far more susceptible to malady. In particular, two plant diseases, Moniliophthora roreri and Moniliophthora perniciosa, nearly decimated the country’s entire cacao population. The impact on the industry was devastating.
"The complications began about a hundred years ago. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it is surmised that all cacao grown in coastal Ecuador was 100% genetically-pure Nacional. Starting in 1916, there was a back-to-back outbreak of two plant diseases (Frosty Pod and Witches’ Broom), which infected cacao across the country. Production was crippled. Foreign cacao varieties, initially in the Trinitario family of cultivars, were subsequently introduced to Ecuador in response to this crisis." [Toak]
Later in the century, agronomists crossbred different varieties of cacao and created strains that were highly productive and resistant to disease. Unfortunately, these varieties, were bred for productivity and not flavor. The crossbreeding was a modification of the native strains, increasing survivability while diminishing quality and taste. And for this, the Ecuadorian cacao market suffered. The diminished quality of the new cacao crops reflected poorly on the once renowned fruit. And as the reputation of their beans plummeted, so did it's sales. However, if you fast forward to today, you'll see there has been great improvement. Ecuador has regained its position as one of the worlds largest cacao exporters. With great effort from scientists, farmers, and preservationists, cacao in Ecuador has begun to rise in quality and favr. While much of what is produced is CCN-51.
"Developed in the 1970s by Homer U. Castro, Ecuador’s CCN-51 cacao variety did not become widely planted in Ecuador until the 1997-98 El Niño event which wiped out a great deal of Nacional crop, and the losses suffered by Nacional growers during this period prompted many to switch to CCN-51" [ChocolateJournalist]
Unfortunately, most of the country produces CCN-51 cacao. However, through direct relation ships with farmers and on-ground organizations, finding farmers who grow heirloom strains of cacao is still possible. Many of these farms are located in the province of Manabí; this is where source our cacao.