U.S. anti-cocaine push embitters Peru chocolate makers
By Caroline Stauffer
LIMA (Reuters) - Connoisseurs who take chocolate as seriously as sommeliers study wine are challenging the widespread use of an inferior cocoa pushed by the U.S. government in its war against drugs in Peru, considered by many to be the birthplace of cocoa.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, introduced the high-yielding but acidic tasting CCN-51 cocoa hybrid to Peru in 2002 to offer farmers an alternative to planting coca - the key ingredient in cocaine.
The program has had some success but chocolate makers are encouraging farmers to instead cultivate smaller amounts of rare, native cocoa that fetches higher prices from buyers who value complex and subtle flavors and judge chocolate by the personality of its cocoa, like the nose of a fine wine.
"I don't understand why USAID is here, in a country so rich in diversity, where everything is virgin. What need is there to introduce new varieties?" said Mariella Balbi, owner of the tiny firm Guanni Chocolates, which sells in California and in Lima.
She sells boxes of 12 dark chocolate truffles made from Peru's native white cocoa and filled with local ingredients like pisco brandy and Amazonian fruits for $40.
USAID says it has a foreign policy mandate to curb coca production by encouraging alternative cash crops, not to cater to gourmets. But it also says it may be open to commercializing native varieties in the future and it is sponsoring a contest to encourage farmers to cultivate more native cocoa.
"We want to help Peru become one of the world's leading specialty cocoa producers," said Loren Stoddard, director of alternative development at USAID in Peru.
Specialty cocoa can refer to organic, fair-trade or native cocoa. Gourmets say nothing makes better chocolate than native cocoa. Continued...