After centuries of exporting its finest cacao beans, Ecuador has produced a new generation of chocolatiers that is turning them into first-rate chocolate. Paul Richardson tastes the world’s best bars.
Ecuador’s cacao zone is to chocolate cognoscenti what Bordeaux is to wine-lovers. Ivory Coast and Ghana lead the world in the production of bulk cacao – the stuff that goes towards your average Cadbury or Hershey’s bar – but the cacao grown in the strip of fertile plain running from the Pacific Ocean to the foot of the Andes, which takes in the provinces of Guayas, Esmeraldas, Manabí and El Oro, is a cut above. Cacao de arriba, as the local variety is known, has depth, subtlety and haunting aromas that run the gamut of tropical and citrus fruits, nuts and berries, flowers and spices.
At the heart of the cacao zone, an hour outside Guayaquil, lies Hacienda La Danesa, a 500-hectare estate specialising in cacao de arriba. La Danesa has recently found fame as a pioneer in “cacao tourism”, bringing visitors from the coast on a narrow-gauge railway. Stepping off the train, they enter a different world.
A cacao plantation is an artificial woodland which looks unfamiliar, even weird, to European eyes. The trees are pruned low and close, with a surprising reddish-pink crown of upper leaves. The swollen fruits, which hang not among the leaves but directly from the trunk, are deep reddish-purple when unripe, taking on hues of pale green, brown, yellow and orange as they mature. Plucked off the bough they feel heavy in the hand, their skin as deeply grooved as a pumpkin. The cacao plantations in this region are tended by traditionally attired horsemen-farmers, the montubios.
In an outbuilding, visitors are given a demonstration of traditional chocolate-making. The cacao beans in their sticky, white casing are fermented in wooden cases, dried in the tropical sun, toasted and ground to an oily mash. The toasted beans have the mahogany-brown colour of finished chocolate, but still taste earthy, yeasty and bitter. Only when sugar is added does the miracle occur, releasing the rich flavours to billow out like a genie from a bottle.
When La Danesa was founded in 1870, Guayaquil was burgeoning thanks to a cacao boom that created a wealthy bourgeois class. In the early 20th century, a series of plagues devastated the plantations; powerful competitors – notably Ghana and Brazil – entered the market and prices plummeted. But a century later Ecuadorean cacao is once more on the rise. China and India have acquired a taste for chocolate, leading to a huge increase in global demand – and not only for the cheap bulk stuff, which accounts for 85% of world production, but also for high-quality varieties like cacao de arriba, used in small quantities to give depth and interest to dull commercial chocolate. A growing taste for dark chocolate is also boosting demand for these so-called “fine and flavour” cacaos, especially in Europe.
The Ecuadorean cacao industry has duly moved up a gear: according to the export agency, ProEcuador, the years 2007-11 saw an average annual growth of 14%. While Brazil continues to recover from an outbreak of disease that blighted its crop in the 1990s, three years ago Ecuador became Latin America’s number-one producer.
As the appetite for Ecuador’s sublime chocolate grows, the structure of the industry is changing. Traditionally, developing-world farmers grew beans and rich-world manufacturers turned them into bars. But a new generation of Ecuadorean chocolate-makers – 26 at the last count – is processing cacao in situ. We are not talking mass-market slabs: these are chocolates that take you on a journey, carrying the palate on intense flavour-waves of citrus and red berries punctuated with earthy notes of walnuts, cedar and tobacco. Most of the new brands have their eyes on overseas markets, but the taste for dark chocolate is catching on locally.
Most successful of the newcomers are Pacari – 14 years in the game and a regular prizewinner at all the European chocolate fairs – and República del Cacao, which has shops all over Latin America and was recently bought into by French chocolate-meisters Valrhona. But coming up on the inside is Hoja Verde, the brainchild of José Nicolás Vélez, a Quito-based entrepreneur. His wares are made with organic cacao sourced from small plantations in the province of Esmeraldas; their idiosyncratic packaging in swirly pop colours is as striking as the dense aromas of the chocolate itself, which lingers and reverberates in the mouth long after eating.
The Hoja Verde factory is to be found not in the tropical cacao zone, but in the sub-Andean highlands of the country’s central region where the temperatures are cool and the humidity low. The building stands within a few metres of a monument marking the position of the Equator. It’s a splendid coincidence, for this is indeed a chocolate that straddles two hemispheres: south and north, great cacao and fine chocolaterie.
The smell inside is rich, cloying and delicious. So far, so like every other chocolate factory in the world – but by multinational standards this is a cottage industry. Hoja Verde will never compete with Cadbury or Hershey’s, nor would it want to fight in the same cheap-choc arena. On the office walls hang framed certificates testifying to Hoja Verde’s strong showing at this year’s Academy of Chocolate Awards. I taste my way through the range, deciding that the star bar is the 72%, whose flavour-journey takes the palate from spice and vanilla to tropical fruit (papaya, persimmon), ending on a high note of floral fragrance.
Back in Quito I visit Vélez’s recently opened Chocolab on Plaza de la Independencia, at the heart of the colonial old town, where in-house chocolatiers create bespoke bars with local ingredients such as amaranth, candied fava bean, caramelised peanuts, uvilla (goldenberry) and fried corn. It’s an example of Ecuador’s growing culture of chocolate discernment – another being the young chefs who are making cacao fino de aroma a key ingredient in the country’s nascent contemporary cuisine. Juan José Morán at La Pizarra in Guayaquil creates savoury dishes like tuna ceviche with grated Pacari chocolate; and at Quitu, where the talented Juan Sebastián Pérez holds court, the long tasting menu features a terrine of Hoja Verde 100% with a mousse of avocado-flower honey and sweet pumpkin ice cream.
So the revolution continues, even as local consumption rises – albeit from a low base: compare Ecuador’s annual 300g per person with Germany’s 9kg. Trends that chocophiles will want to watch are raw chocolate, made with untoasted cacao, vintage chocolate with a specific year of production and strict bean-to-bar chocolates from single plantations. Before long, it seems safe to predict, the new Ecuadorean chocolate will be on everybody’s lips.
Paul Richardson is the author of “Indulgence: One man’s selfless search for the best chocolate in the world”. He travelled to Ecuador with miravivatravel.com