I ended up spending almost a month in Ecuador, and wish I could’ve stayed even longer in this incredible, beautiful country. Ecuador has a snazzy ‘ama la vida’ or ‘love life’ logo you see everywhere, and I’ve been thinking of what I’ve loved during my travels here. Starting, of course, with the true love of my own life.
It sounds ridiculously out of character for someone who blogs by the name of chocoholix, but when I decided to include Ecuador in my “life’s too short” adventure, I was all focussed on getting to the Galápagos, and wasn’t even thinking of the country’s growing reputation as a quality chocolate maker, not just cocoa producer. So discovering just how great Ecuadorean chocolate is, has been a bonus and joy. I am very familiar of course with Pacari which has been successfully exporting its quality and multiple award-winning organic range to the UK for some time. Meanwhile, the high-end single origin brand Republica del Cacao has a growing number of prestigious store locations across Quito, Guayaqui, Cusco and Lima, and has also collared the airport gift shop market it seems. So, whilst in the country itself, I focussed on trying some lesser known, local and artisanal brands.
Ecuador has a long history with cacao that precedes the Spanish colonial era. The stories of the origin of cacao and chocolate all tend to start with the Western discovery of cacao in Central America, where the conquistadors found the Mayan people drinking Xocolatl. But, the Criollo cacao tree is now widely understood to have originated in South America, going on to be cultivated further in Central America, and genetic research by scientists such as Jean-Carlos Motomayor now put the centre of cacao biodiversity in the upper Amazon region, right here in Ecuador.
What I also learned is that Ecuador’s success in quality cacao and chocolate production lies in the fact it has focussed mostly on production of what is called ‘fino o de aroma’ or ‘arriba’ cacao, rather than the fast-growing CCN51 hybrid cocoa which lacks the quality of pure criollo, but can quadruple yields and so is now widely grown for mass market production. Legend says that ‘Arriba’ cacao apparently got its name in the 19th century when a Swiss chocolatier was exploring the Guayas river, and was struck by a rich aromatic scent coming from the cacao being unloaded from canoes by local Amazonian people. On asking where it came from, they replied “Del río arriba”. Basically, upriver. Only about 5% of global cocoa earns the ‘fino o de aroma’ or fine or flavour designation, and with 75% of its production classed as such Ecuador still has the biggest chunk of the global market for this quality cocoa, with its rich range of floral, fruity and nutty undertones.
At the tiny artisanal Yumbos chocolate plant in the cloud forest town of Mindo, I took shelter from torrential rain, whilst expat Brit Phil Collins showed me around after apologising for not being able to perform the drum riff from In the Air Tonight. Here, they are working with an Afro-Ecuadorian community in the coastal region of Esmeraldas (Mindo is just off the road between Quito and Esmeraldas), where beans are grown, fermented and dried, before being transported to the cloud forest for manufacture. In part, this has helped increase enterprise in an area with a high level of poverty and unemployment. Yumbos does small batch production of dark chocolate bars with 60, 70, 85 and 100% cacao, as well as cocoa nibs, coffee, ginger, chilli and lemongrass flavours, and cocoa butter too. I tasted them all, along with a very sticky chocolate brownie paired with fruits. The 85% cocoa and 70% with ginger were particularly good, with a deep fruity cocoa flavour, and good amount of bitter tang. The 60% cocoa with coffee bar is their best seller though, and with a great mocha balance and delicately crunchy bean texture, I could taste why.
Even more exciting for me however, was the discovery of an entirely new cacao-based sensation! Syrup de cacao is made by suspending the cocoa pod pulp that surrounds the beans to extract the juices, which are then pasteurised into a treacly, almost savoury, liquid not dissimilar to balsamic, but with a good kick of cacao in the background. It can be used just like balsamic too, in salad dressings, as a marinade or garnish, or mixed with onion, tomato and spices for a barbecue sauce. Simply delicious!
There are so many great Ecuadorean chocolate brands, each offering a wide range of bars, it was hard to even scratch the surface, yes, even for this chocoholix! And it was hard to go wrong with such fierce competition based on quality, flavour and taste, rather than the race to the bottom on price of the mass market. If you ever make it here, check out the town you’re in for local artisanal chocolate companies as they’re springing up everywhere, and look out for growing national brands such as
– Kallari (a 100% Kichwa farmer cooperative owned chocolate company, with 850 farmers in a bean-to-bar enterprise)
– Hoja Verde (organic cocoa from UCOPRAE cooperative in Esmeraldas, includes mandarin, maracuja and guanaba flavours)
– Wiñak (an association of small-scale Kichwa farmers, 70% female, produces and excellent rich and earthy 85% cocoa bar)
– Caoni (yummy passion fruit and cocoa nibs flavours, amongst others, in fact the best passion fruit flavour of those I tasted! Supports the Centro Del Muchacho Trabajador).
In short, come to Ecuador and you’ll be in chocolate heaven. Let’s hope more of it makes it into our international markets too. And if anyone is already selling genuine Ecuadorian syrup de cacao in the UK, let me know, as the bottle from Yumbos currently snuggling inside some unused socks in my rucksack is unlikely to last for long when I eventually get home!