Ecuador is to chocolate cognoscenti what Bordeaux is to wine-lovers. Most of the milk chocolates contain cacao from the Ivory Coast or Ghana, but the cacao de arriba grown in the region running from the Pacific Ocean to the foot of the Andes is something else entirely. It’s flavor is more robust and has subtle notes of tropical berries, nuts and spices.
Latin America what else?
Hacienda La Danesa is only an hour’s drive outside of Guayaquil. It’s a 500-hectare cacao plantation which is visited by an increasing amount of tourists each year. It was founded in 1870 when the cacao boom created a wealthy bourgeois class in Guayaquil. At the start of the 20th-century, powerful competitors like Ghana and Brazil entered the market and prices plummeted. But nearly a century later the popularity of Ecuadorian chocolate is on the rise. In recent years China and India became significant chocolate exporters which lead to a huge increase in global demand. And we’re not only talking about the cheap stuff that accounts for 85 % of world production. We’re talking about the good stuff, with high cacao content. The Ecuadorian cacao industry has grown by 14 % between 2007 and 2011 and three years ago Ecuador became Latin Americas number one producer.
As visitors to La Danesa step off the coastal railway they immediately find themselves in another world. The plantation is an unfamiliar sight to European eyes. The trees are pruned low and close, with a surprising reddish-pink crown on the 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. Cacao beans are surprisingly heavy, their skin deeply grooved like a pumpkin. The cacao plantations in this region are tended by traditionally attired horsemen-farmers, the Montubios.
Visitors can watch how cacao beans are made into chocolate. They keep the cacao in wooden cases then dry them under the tropical sun then they’re toasted. This is when the beans get their signature mahogany-brown color which is not unlike the chocolate we know. Then they’re ground to an oily mash which still has an earthy, yeasty and bitter taste. Only when sugar is added does the miracle occur, releasing the rich flavors to billow out like a genie from a bottle.
The new generation of chocolate
Cacao de arriba is often used in small quantities to add a little more flavor to the most popular chocolates sold in shops worldwide. The appetite for dark chocolate is growing, however, especially in Europe. Parallel to this, the industry itself is going through changes. Traditionally farmers would grow the cacao beans while manufacturers produced chocolate from them. But a new generation of Ecuadorian chocolate –makers has appeared who do both themselves. We are not talking about mass-market producers here, rather more special, qualitative stuff. Most of these new brands aim to reach the overseas markets and some of them have already achieved this. Most successful of them are Pacari – 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 a French company. We should also mention Hoja Verde, the brand of José Nicolás Vélez. His wares are made with organic cacao sourced and which are doing remarkably well at this year’s Academy of Chocolate Awards.
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. Their chocolate is made special by local ingredients such as amaranth, caramelized hazelnut or corn. Hoja Verde will never be able to compete with brands like Cadbury or Hershey and they don’t want to. They’re a good example of how Ecuadorian chocolates are starting to have their own culture. And the countries chocolate consumption has increased in recent years although is true that there’s still a significant difference in the yearly consumption per person ratio between Ecuador and Germany for example. The former is 300 grams, while the latter is 9 kilograms. So there’s still room to grow and as long as the quality is preferred over quantity Ecuadorian chocolate has a good chance to conquer the world.