Pataxte: Untold Treasure of the Jungle
During our last journey to the flowery mountains of cacao near Lake Atitlan, as we were looking for new criollo cacao farmers, we actually found another treasure of natural medicine: pataxte (pronounced pa-TOSH-tay).
Pataxte has several names: Theobroma bicolor, Cacao cimarron, Jaguar tree, Golden cacao, or Macambo in South America. It is a rare jungle fruit, similar to his famous cousin cacao. The size and shape of the pods are almost the same, although their skins are different. Pataxte’s skin displays superb natural patterns as if they were carved by mother nature’s hands herself. It’s colored earthy tones: brown, greenish or yellow grey-- unlike the clear and vibrant purple, orange or turquoise of cacao.
The fruit inside the pataxte pod is two or three times more abundant than the fruit of cacao. It’s flavor is closer to the one of custard apple or papaya, juicy, sweet and fruity. Nothing like the sharp sweet acidity of cacao flesh.
Pataxte offers amazing nutritional properties, especially when transformed in an appropriate way. This is a careful process of fermentation, drying, gently toasting, peeling, and grinding. It is rich in monounsaturated fats and alkaloids like cacao, although it does not contain any caffeine. The pataxte jungle tree has been ignored by industrialists and spared from monoculture practices in our modern times. This may be because it appears less adapted to intensive farming. Therefore, it’s genomic identity remains untouched by the type of impact that centuries of hybridization by human hands can cause. This makes it a rare treasure of the jungle.
In Pre-columbian times, pataxte was often grown, processed, and cooked together with cacao. I can assure you how great they work together: the nutty-fat aspect of pataxte paste brings down the bitterness of cacao to a more voluptuous flavor profile. It’s completely unique nutty aroma and natural majestic golden colour blew our minds when we processed it for the first time last year.
The tradition of cultivating those two sacred trees of the jungle made its way through the storms of the colonisation era and survived in few, isolated cultural pockets.
In the northwest regions of Copan, Honduras, pataxte is known for its tasty flesh and the fatty content of it’s seeds. Some trees are found covering cacao forests in the hot, humid valleys. Few farmers still harvest the fruits when they fall from the high branches of usually giant, old trees.
Pataxte pods can only sometimes be found in the village markets of the Suchitepequez region in North-West Guatemala, sold by the abuelas (elders), collected from the grounds in the surrounding cacao forests.
In southern Mexico regions, the technique of fermenting, roasting and grinding the beans into paste for drinks has also been preserved. Especially in the state of Oaxaca, the famous pinole blends are often made with cinnamon, corn, sugar, cacao and pataxte. Let’s step back in time again: In colonial times, when Europeans first arrived in Mexica lands, they found that Pataxte was commonly sold in the markets. but it appeared to be less appreciated than cacao. Even if the distinction between cacao and pataxte is difficult to make, especially when analyzing the different Mesoamerican iconographies, archeological evidence shows us that pataxte might have been prized as a ritual food by Mayan civilizations since prehistoric times.
The wisdom of oral traditions remaining in multiple Mayan regions confirm these conjectures. Among the Quiche, Q'eqchi,Ts’utujil, Kaq’chikel, and others, pataxte is presented as part of a millenium cosmovision. In the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, T.bicolor is presented as the type of cacao that exists in the first level of heaven, associated with the Jaguar (maybe in relation with the patterns of its skin) or ‘Ix’, one of the original or essential jungle spirits. Otherwise, pataxte pods are also commonly used for ornaments and altars in a variety of religious ceremonies and holidays, like for the Semana Santa in Suchitepequez. In her book titled A New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, Maricel E. Presilla presents traditions of gendered associations between Theobroma bicolor and theobroma cacao. She explains that pataxte is associated with masculinity while cacao represents femininity. This still begs the question as to why T. Cacao has become the more popular variety. A wide and appealing mystery still resides around pataxte. How can such a treasure of nutrition and abundance remain so discreet in our times of superfoods? I can’t tell. What I know for sure is that I will do my best to grow and activate a durable, fair and artisan economy of pataxte cacao. The issues at stake with agroforestry are huge considering the dire drought (which deforestation is the cause of) happening in Central America. Already, we have shared and activated pataxte culture with the farmers we work with, hoping to be able to share golden cacao with the world within a year from now.
This season we found 50 pataxte pods in the Suchitepequez village markets and brought them back to our shop for processing. We dried two different batches on our roof. One is a 3 days ferment and the other 6 days. After research and experiment it seems that an optimal fermentation period could actually go much longer in a proper set up. Both came out tasting deliciously nutty: I can't wait to turn them into chocolate bars and drinks.
Pataxte (Theobroma bicolor Humb. & Bonpl.): Species underutilized in Mexico. Gálvez-Marroquín; Reyes-Reyes; Avendaño-Arrazate,; Hernández-Gómez ; Mendoza-López; Díaz-Fuentes. Presilla, M. E. (2001). The new taste of chocolate: A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. The Jaguar tree (Theobroma bicolor Bonpl.) Johanna Kufer and Cameron McNeil, in Chocolate in Mesoamerica. Acultural History of cacao. Cameron L. McNeil.