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LIMA (Reuters) - European buyers say cocoa producers in Peru could successfully follow in the footsteps of the country's coffee growers, who have turned the Andean country into the world's largest exporter of organic coffee beans.
It is already the world's second-largest producer of organic cocoa, yet so far Peru's exports have lagged behind leading countries such as the Ivory Coast, Indonesia and Brazil.
Peru wants to do for its cocoa what Colombia did for coffee with its globally-recognized image of Juan Valdez. Peru can't compete on quantity but hopes to compete in specialty markets with a distinctive brand of its own.
"Like wine in France, beer in Germany and tequila in Mexico, Peru should be known for its cocoa," said Astrid Gutsche, a pastry chef and spouse of Gaston Acurio, one of the country's top chefs, with restaurants from California to Argentina.
In Peru, growers hope to carve out a niche with high-quality dark chocolate candy bars, chocolate sushi and elaborate sculptures crafted out of the sweet stuff to put in shop windows.
"In terms of modeling, cocoa is virgin territory," said Marines Justiniano, a pastry chef who led an eight-person crew to build a replica of Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca city, out of 250 lbs of Peruvian cocoa.
With just 30,000 cocoa-growing families, Peru's output is dwarfed by West Africa, which produces two-thirds of global supply.
"We are on the path to recognition of a national chocolate," Victor Manuel Noriega, a director in Peru's agriculture ministry, said at a cocoa convention on Friday in Lima that group together exporters, European confectioners and chocolate somelliers.
Buyers for high-end cocoa brands are eating it up.
The world's largest chocolate maker, Zurich-based Barry Callebaut, offers a line of chocolate dense with cocoa from Peru's Alto El Sol Plantation. It is said to be the chocolate of choice for French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"He's not the only one eating Peruvian chocolate. It's truly the year of Peru," said Stephane Bonnat, the director of commercial relations for Bonnat chocolates of France and the descendant of a long line of chocolatiers.
The genetic diversity of Peruvian cocoa has protected crops from pests and disease that have hindered production in neighboring Ecuador and Brazil, according to a 2006 Annals of Botany report.
Numerous varieties also entice those in constant search for exotic new flavor profiles.
"There are types of cocoa plants in Peru whose flavor is not yet known. I feel like Christopher Columbus discovering a new world," said Valentine Tibere, an ambassador from the Salon du Chocolat, a Paris-based trade group.
In October, the Salon gave the Tocache Agroindustrial Cooperative in the San Martin region of Peru its annual award for the most aromatic cocoa bean.
Cocoa and coffee in Peru is often grown alongside or near patches of coca, a leaf traditionally used as a mild stimulant but now mostly used as the raw ingredient for cocaine.
While coca plantations are expanding in Peru -- the country recently surpassed Colombia to become the world's largest producer -- the government has also had some success persuading farmers to plant alternative crops and halt planting of the illegal crop.
While some farmers have been reluctant to give up lucrative coca planting, some are finding alternative crops can bring in healthy amounts of cash.
Edgar Isla Sanchez is seeking organic certification for his 1,000-member cocoa cooperative, believing it will boost members' incomes by as much as 60 percent.
"It's an opportunity to improve the farmers' lives," he said.
Reporting by Emily Schmall; Editing by Terry Wade and Lisa Shumaker