Ecuador: The home of the world’s best chocolate?


In Esmeraldas, the lush province on Ecuador’s northern border with Colombia, farmers are proud to say they produce “black gold.” But they are not talking about oil (Ecuador’s main export), but instead cocoa beans.

The smooth, bitter-tasting paste extracted from cocoa beans is the key ingredient in chocolate and is one of this country’s claims to fame. It is always well-rooted in the history of Ecuador – the world’s largest exporter of cocoa until the beginning of the 20th Century.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1900s when plant disease and the rise of new cultivations in British and French colonies across Africa and Asia, that Ecuador lost its top ranking.

At that time cocoa started losing its appeal to farmers in Ecuador and was replaced by bananas and coffee which were seen at the time as more lucrative.

West Africa replaced Ecuador and became the world’s leader in cocoa production and exports, focusing on so-called “bulk” or “ordinary” beans, that are used for processed chocolate-flavoured candies and sweets. 

“Fine” or “flavour” beans, the top-quality varieties that are used in gourmet products because of their superior taste, account for a small percentage of the world’s cocoa production – only 5% but demand is growing.

Chocolate, much like wine, reflects the flavours of the region where cocoa beans are grown, and how they are dried and fermented. As demand for more flavourful cocoa has risen over the last decade, Ecuador has emerged as the pre-eminent exported of fine beans.

“Farmer’s didn’t use to pay much attention to cocoa,” says Ignacio Estupinan, a 66-year old farmer who is known in the area as Don Nacho.

“Now everybody knows how valuable cocoa is. It’s the best business we have,” he adds.

Recent archaeological studies have suggested that Ecuador may have in fact been the original home of the cocoa bean with remnants of cocoa found in ceramic pottery dating back to 3,300 BC. 

The West’s love affair with chocolate came in the 16th century, when Aztec ruler Montezuma introduced Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes to a spicy chocolate drink that was known as “xocolatl”. It quickly became a fad in Europe with people adding sugar to the spicy mixture.

Ecuadorean chocolate is known for its floral characteristics, with some beans tasting fruity while others having a nutty flavour. 

Santiago Peralta, founder of Pacari, a successful Ecuadorean brand of fine organic chocolate, said: “After 250 years exporting cocoa, nobody knew how to make chocolate in this country.”

In 2002, he went looking for old cocoa trees while developing a fair-trade model to give farmers a better pay for a better product. His experiment worked. His chocolate company has won several prizes at the 2012 International Chocolate Awards for its combination of flavours and successful alternative business model.

One of its bars, Raw Chocolate, was even judged to be the best “dark plain” chocolate bar in the world!

Ecuador’s new black gold may help provide a stable future for its farmers while putting Ecuador back on the map as a leading chocolate producer.

Read full story here

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