Negros Occidental is known as the sugar capital of the Philippines but it is more than just hectares and hectares of sugar cane farms. In fact, the province’s rich volcanic soil also grows one of the most sought-after cacao varieties in the world.
The heirloom criollo grown in Brgy., Atipuluan, Bago City by Negrense farmer Chris Fadriga won the gold award in the 2021 International Cocoa Awards (ICA) in Paris, which makes Fadriga one of only three Filipinos recognized as among the best cocoa producers in the world. The two other cacao varieties from the Philippines that made the cut were from Talandang, Tugbok District, Davao City, and Barangay Sawata, San Isidro, Davao del Norte. The recognition means Fadriga’s criollo is one of the 50 cacao bean varieties that made it to the “2021 Cocoa of Excellence” roster out of the 235 cacao samples evaluated from over 50 countries.
The ICA, a Paris-based biennial global competition celebrates the quality, flavor diversity, and unique origins of cocoa varieties.
Mr. Fadriga works from his Filipino Aromatico Cacao Nursery in Bago City where he grows his award-winning cacao specie. He says they are actually remnants of the old criollo varieties from Mexico, which he had to search for from all over the country some five years ago. “What we have here is a collection of criollo cacao from Batangas, Cebu, and Siquijor,” he tells us. “We made nurseries to propagate them so that we can save them for the future chocolatiers of the country.”
The quality of chocolate produced from the criollos of Bago City, says Fadriga, are naturally flavorful and aromatic. And his chocolate bars are so in demand we didn’t even get to sample them on our visit. So we had to ask the farmer to describe to us the taste in detail. “The bitterness is not there. The taste is so pleasant, na puwede siyang makain even without sugar,” he says. “It’s fruity, nutty, and has that floral scent.”
Fadriga says there are basically two types of cacao—the ones that are grown in huge quantities and are being traded around the world, and the ones that are grown for the niche market or the artisanal chocolatiers. The varieties that Fadriga is growing belong to the second category. Criollo varieties comprise about 3% of the total world supply of cacao, which is why it is sought after by chocolate makers from various countries.
Fadriga tells us some Japanese reps have visited his farm 11 times the past few years and offered to buy it so they could get a hold of his precious criollos. He declined the offer. “I told them this is for the chocolatiers of the Philippines,” the Negrense says.
The country’s heirloom cacao beans originated from Mexico during the Galleon Trade of the 1500s. Through research, Fadriga found out the Philippines was actually the first country to receive cacao from Mexico—but the Mexicans lost these heirloom varieties due to cross pollination. Some Mexicans came to Bago City in recent years claiming the criollos as theirs, says Fadriga. “It’s no longer yours, it’s ours now,” he told them. To avoid future problems, he registered the product with the Intellectual Property Office and named it Filipino Aromatico.
Currently, Fadriga has about 16 local cacao cultivars (varieties) that he was able to gather from around the Philippines. “What was nice is that I think we have initiated the search for our old criollo. There are more farmers now who realize that these old varieties are very precious and we have to save them,” he says.
Fadriga’s criollo beans sell at P500 per kilo, compared to the regular cacao from Davao that sells at P120 per kilo. There is huge demand, he confirms, but his production remains very small. But with a major investor, Fadriga is starting to develop a 62-hectare farm in Talisay, Negros, which will be planted with heirloom cacao. “It’s going to be one of the biggest in the country when it starts to operate,” he says. This will, of course, include the varieties he entered into the competition.
Out of the 14 cultivars that he initially sent to the competition for genetic testing, two came out 99.97% pure criollo. “It’s very rare to get pure criollo now because it’s very easy to cross pollinate. But because our country is archipelagic, hindi nag cross pollinate ang mga cacao that was brought here. The old gene was preserved, it maintained its purity,” the cacao farmer reports.
The 63-year old was growing vegetables, roses and other ornamental plants in Cebu before he decided to grow cacao in Bago City. Fadriga’s father is from Dumalag, Capiz and his mother is from Jaro, Iloilo. It was his dad’s work that brought the family to Negros Occidental.
Fadriga—who is the president of the country’s Plantacion de Sikwate Association—is also starting to set up a small facility that will serve as a learning site and a place for processing their beans to produce his own brand of chocolate bars. He said his dream is to make Negros Occidental an heirloom cacao producing province and the home of the best-tasting chocolates grown by passionate next-generation cacao farmers.
Photos by Jerome Gomez