First, a chocolate primer. There are three main types of cocoa: criollo, trinitario and forastero, and each is different from the others in significant ways. Forastero is the workhorse; it grows consistently and tends to be hardy and disease-resistant, but it doesn't have much nuance in terms of flavor profile. About 90 percent of the world's chocolate is made from the beans from this type of cacao fruit. Criollo has a complex and fruity flavor, but has much lower yields and is less disease-resistant; the pure version of the plant was thought to have been lost, since over the years it was crossbred with forastero to product the trinitario type (named for Trinidad, where it was first grown). Trinitario is what much of the better quality chocolates we enjoy are made from, and account for about 10 percent of the global chocolate market.

But according to some new research in Madagascar, the high-quality chocolate obsessives (and fair-trade champions) at Madecasse Chocolate Company have found some of those original criollo plants.

According to a news release from the company: "Pure Ancient Criollo, a once-thought extinct species of cacao, as well as other pure and extremely rare varieties of cacao, have been “rediscovered” by Madécasse Chocolate Company in remote northwest Madagascar along the region’s original forest cover. The findings, confirmed by genetic testing by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) in collaboration with the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA), ensure that these cacao trees — widely considered to produce legendary, fine flavor beans that are sought after worldwide —c an now be preserved and grown for future generations, benefiting farmers, the environment, and chocolate lovers alike." (The once-common Amelonado strain, a rare and disappearing variety and several trees in the Trinitario cluster, were also found.)

This news isn't just good for those of us who like a daily square or two of high-quality chocolate (which as been shown to have numerous health benefits), but because Madagascar is home to significant populations of threatened and endangered species. (Due to the island's size and distance from the African coast, about 80 percent of the plants and animals found there are found nowhere else in the world.) A 2008 coup and "general lack of rule-of-law has caused significant drawback in foreign-aid and investment, leaving the economy stagnant and national parks, once the highlight of the conservation world, relatively open for logging and massive deforestation," according to Madecasse, which has been working in the country for more than five years.

“This discovery means a lot of things,” says Madécasse co-founder Tim McCollum. “It means we can plant more rare cacao and preserve more of the environment in the process. It means farmers will make even higher wages that get reinvested into their local communities. And it means we'll continue to make even more flavorful chocolate.”

Madécasse is partnering with Conservation International and local communities to support cocoa regrowth and preservation efforts around targeted national parks in Madagascar, which, due to illegal logging and “slash-and-burn” farming, have declined. According to Conservation International, “Cocoa growing regions are critical buffer zones and corridors for protected areas under significant threat of deforestation. Cocoa cultivation requires a shade canopy, which in turn provides a natural habitat for flora and fauna.”

And in case you were wondering, yes, this chocolate tastes as delicious as the good work its doing.

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

A new kind of chocolate?
Chocoholics (and cacao growers) rejoice! A type of cocoa once believed extinct has been found! Criollo cocoa has much lower yields and is less disease-resistant