One of the cocoa plants at the Algarrobo research centre / SUR

Scientists in south of Spain produce Europe’s first ever cocoa crop

A team of researchers at La Mayora in Agarrobo has obtained the first harvest of 100 kilos of pods of four varieties with 80 plants in unheated greenhouses

Eugenio Cabezas
EUGENIO CABEZAS AXARQUÍA

Despite the European's love affair with chocolate, no one ever managed to successfully cultivate cocoa in Europe until now. A team of researchers in the Axarquía has harvested its first large crop of cocoa pods. The Institute of Subtropical and Mediterranean Horticulture (IHSM) 'La Mayora', located in the Axarquia town of Algarrobo, which is a joint research institute involving the University of Malaga, has been successfully cultivating cocoa trees in greenhouses since 2019. After three years, in the last few weeks they have harvested four different varieties of cocoa pods.

In total, around 100 kilos of pods have been harvested, from which the seeds are extracted and used in a complex fermentation and cooking process to make chocolate. The head of the Subtropical Fruit Growing department at the experimental centre, Iñaki Hormaza, explained that the idea first came about during conversations with La Despensa de Palacio, the only chocolate factory left in Andalucía, located in the town of Estepa in Seville province. Its managers were also interested in producing cocoa to make gourmet chocolates.

Hormaza and his team are growing about 80 cocoa trees in two greenhouses; one heated and one unheated. What makes this first harvest particularly successful is the fact that it has been achieved not only in the heated greenhouse, but also in the unheated one.

"This has been achieved thanks to the laboratory technician Ruth Aranda manually pollinating the flowers," Hormaza explained. He went on to say that they have used pollinating insects in the greenhouse. "We are studying what they are, because we don't have the insects of the Amazon here," he added.

Attempts since the 18th century

Hormaza is particularly "proud" of what has been achieved, because until now the only successful experiments in cocoa cultivation in Europe have been carried out in heated botanical gardens. "There have been many attempts since the 18th century in the open air and in unheated greenhouses in Malaga, but they have not worked until now," he said. La Despensa de Palacio already has the pods and staff there plan to produce the first chocolates early this year.

However, Hormaza is cautious about the long term viability of growing cocoa in the Axarquía due to the requirements of greenhouse cultivation and the lack of pollinating insects. "Depending on what the market will pay, we will see if it could be profitable,” he said. "It is more ecological because it reduces the carbon footprint, but in the short term I don't see it as something that is going to expand a lot. It would be a very gourmet market," said the Malaga researcher.

He added that if cocoa is planted commercially in the Axarquía, it will only be done so after careful research. "There have been serious mistakes with some species," he admits. "Varieties have been introduced that are not suitable for our climate and after a few years you realise that they are not profitable," he said.

"There are probably still several years to go before we can enjoy chocolate with cocoa seeds produced in Spain, but the successes in adapting other crops from the tropics, such as avocado, custard apple, mango, dragon fruit, lychee, have been very successful,” Hormaza added.