As Colombia is known for coffee, and Chile for it’s fine wine, Ecuador is the king of fine chocolate, known as Cacao. What’s incredible about the industry is that chocolatiers from the world over work directly with Ecuadorian farmers to ensure a fare wage.
Two kinds of beans are produced – the national brand of high quality (Arriba National) and the inferior brand, known as CCN-51, used in common candy bars found in the US.
Sixty percent of quality cocoa beans used in Cacao are found in Ecuador. They export to the US (Whole Foods buys a majority), Switzerland and many other countries. One of the blessings of these chocolate purveyors found is Cacao is virtually recession proof, with spikes in pricing never disrupting sales.
With a combination of a low labor cost and a recession proof product, you might think corporations would take advantage of such fertile conditions. But it’s quite the opposite. Companies are working with Ecuadorian farmers to pay a fair price for the Arriba National production.
I was able to tour a plantation, seeing the cocoa bean pods firsthand and see the full bean to bar process. My journey began in the Amazon jungle, taking a canoe to a remote spot, where my guide, Vladimir, showed me around his family’s farm, where’s he’s worked since before he was a teen.
The farms, known as Chokras, have been in families for generations and produce a variety of items, not just the cocoa beans, allowing families to live off of the land. As we walk deeper into the plantation we see lemongrass, pineapple, yucca and plantains.
Coming upon the brightly colored yellow pods, Vladimir picks one off a tree and holds it in one hand, while slicing it open with his giant machete in the other hand. This reveals a white, slimy colored bed of seeds, which resemble Lychee. But upon tasting them, a delightfully addictive fruity flavor surprises the palate. This is what chocolate comes from?
The process to from bean to bar is far from over at this point. The pulp-like consistency must be removed. Much like wine, an important step is the fermentation of the beans, which is where they start to develop their flavor.
Then the beans must then be dried for a full week. Some sit in giant tents to dry out, while newer processes involve solar power. A roasting process separates the seeds from the shell. Now they are ready to be mixed with other ingredients and made into chocolate.
Back at the Amazon lodge, we got back to making quality Cacao chocolate. We all took turns cranking the machine, as it can be tough work.
In an age when it’s common to hear about big corporations inserting their might over third world nations, it’s a breath of fresh air to learn about the respect for both the farmers and the land on which this magic bean flourishes.
In case you can’t tell, I had a fabulous time in Ecuador. I loved it so much I’m headed back there this fall, for a full on culinary tour, complete with farm visits, market tours, cooking with local chefs and more. Want to come with me? Just message me and I’ll get you more details.