If you are a chocolate lover, Peru is the perfect place to visit for a dose of sweet, melty goodness. Theobroma cacao, the small evergreen tree that bears cocoa beans, grows in abundance in Peru. In fact, the very origin of cacao is the Amazon basin and Andean lowlands of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Peruvian chocolate has been enjoyed by local people for centuries – used ceremonially initially and gradually enjoyed as the sweet confection it is today. Peru has some of the most delicious chocolate in the world, as illustrated by its 17 medals at the 2019 International Chocolate Awards, and its continual praise by just about all who taste it.
History of Peruvian Chocolate
SOUTH AMERICAN ORIGINS
Chocolate is endemic to the rainforests of South America, specifically of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. There is some debate that it grew at the same time in Mesoamerica (present-day Mexico and Central America), but the strongest paleobotanical and phytogenetic research finds its origins in the Amazon basin. In fact, it has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years by local indigenous communities of the Amazon Rainforest. In Peru, the Incas, and even their predecessors, cultivated cacao and made it into a brew. The beverage was considered medicinal and often used ritualistically.
In Peru, cacao grows in both the basin of the Amazon Rainforest and the foothills of the Andes Mountains. Specifically, Peruvian cacao is grown in Amazonas, San Martin and Ucayali in the Amazon region, as well as low jungle areas of Cajamarca, Huánuco, Junín, Ayacucho and Cusco. Additionally, it is grown along the northern coast in Tumbes and Piura.
Harvesting and Production
With cacao, there is typically a main crop and a mid crop season. In Peru, the main crop season for growing and harvesting cacao is between April and August. The majority of the cacao grows during the main crop season. The mid crop season in Peru is between October and November. Even though the actual growing season and harvest is limited to a certain portion of the year, tending to cacao is a year-round effort for cacao farmers. All year, local workers take care of the trees, hand harvest the pods, process the beans into chocolate, and finally, package and sell the finished product. Approximately 50,000 Peruvians work in the cacao industry.
Believe it or not, as delicious as chocolate is, it is also super healthy. In fact, it’s a Peruvian superfood. Especially in its raw form, whole cacao and cacao powder benefits are abundant. Firstly, it is full of fiber and protein, which support digestion and build muscle, respectively. Secondly, it is booming with trace minerals like potassium and magnesium, which support neurological and metabolic function. Perhaps most immediately notable is its mood-enhancing properties, thanks to its theobromine and phenylethylamine content, which can boost mood and increase energy levels almost instantly.
Cacao health benefits are diminished with processing and sugar/milk additives, but even a good dark chocolate bar can bring quite a lot of minerals, antioxidants, and other bioactive compounds.