The Sweet Spot

The birthplace of cacao, Ecuador, aims to reclaim its position at the center of the fine chocolate world

Story by Amiee White Beazley • For Hemispheres, June 2017

In the cool shade of evening, Fabian Iza leads me slowly through the trees. Iza, a farm manager for a French chocolate company, prunes branches, knocks down termite nests, and handpicks stink bugs and nocturnal ants from fruit. When he spots a bright yellow, football-size pod, he raises his machete and cuts it down with a single stroke. A second crack of the blade splits open the dense shell, revealing a mass of glimmering white pulp packed in the center. He hands me the pod, and I dig my fingers inside, grasping a slippery, pulp-covered seed and dropping it into my mouth. The pulp is sweet and tart, strong yet delicate, with hints of grapefruit and flowers—like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. But it’s that white seed at the center of the pulp that’s the real prize: the Nacional cacao bean, the pride of Ecuadorian chocolate.

Experts long believed that cacao, the bitter seed that is the root ingredient for chocolate, originated in Mexico. But in 2014, scientists concluded that cacao first grew in the Amazon basin of Ecuador—where Iza’s farm is located. The aromatic variety native to Ecuador made the country the world’s most prolific cacao-growing region in the early 20th century, but a fungal blight called witches’ broom decimated production and led many farmers to abandon the crop. Now, thanks to efforts by the Ecuadorian government, advances in cultivation techniques, and the explosion of the global craft chocolate movement, cacao is making a comeback. One of the leaders of this resurgence is a chocolatier named Santiago Peralta.

Hundreds of miles from Iza’s farm, in the restaurant-studded, bohemian La Floresta neighborhood of Quito, I visit the headquarters of Peralta’s company, Pacari, Ecuador’s first, and South America’s leading, tree-to-bar chocolate maker. Pacari roasts, grinds, and mixes cacao into chocolate, adding ingredients such as Maras pink salt, cacao nibs, and lemon verbena. When I arrive for a visit, there are more than 20 samples awaiting me, including Andean golden berries covered in Pacari chocolate. I wait an hour for Peralta, and by the time he shows up, I’ve eaten almost all of it.

When Peralta enters the room, he smiles apologetically and runs a hand through his long brown hair. He wastes no time with chitchat, though; he wants to know what I think of the chocolate. “It’s fantastic,” I tell him, and I’m not just being polite. It tastes the way the jungle smells, hinting of citrus and herbs, with just a touch of sweetness. I can see why Pacari has won gold at every World Chocolate Awards competition since entering for the first time in 2012.

Peralta, a former social justice lawyer, and his wife, Carla Barbotó, entered the cacao industry because they saw an opportunity to expand sustainable farming and at the same time help revitalize Ecuador’s economy by making a product entirely here. (The company uses only organic and biodynamic-certified cacao, sourced from 3,500 local families across several regions.)

“This is a new day,” Peralta tells me. “We want Ecuador to start making chocolate here. Small-batch, single-origin chocolate, using only Nacional cacao.”

Peralta has many allies in this struggle, including conservation groups and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.
The combined efforts of these organizations have begun to, well, bear fruit, as Nacional production in Ecuador is again booming. Premium cacao production has doubled in the last two years. While fine aroma cacao makes up only 6 percent of global production, Ecuador is
now the world’s largest exporter, supplying 63 percent of the premium cacao market.

Additionally, Ecuador is now aiming to make its cacao culture an international draw. In partnership with Metropolitan Touring, Peralta created the Pacari Agro Tourism Project to promote chocolate tourism. “We want to be the Land of Chocolate,” Peralta says. “Everything we do is to show what beauty we have here.”

Other players in Ecuador’s tourism industry have taken note. “Tourism here has typically been linked to the Galápagos,” says
Oonagh Mallinder, of Audley Travel, a U.S.- and U.K.-based custom travel service that has been organizing tailor-made cultural trips here for 17 years. “The attraction of mainland Ecuador—visiting the jungle and the link to cacao—is only now being discovered. When people get there, and they realize that some of the finest and most prestigious chocolate is being produced in Ecuador, they are amazed.”

What’s more, the Ecuadorian government has invested in the “Land of Chocolate” initiative, opening a cacao museum at the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo cultural center in Quito and establishing the Chocolate Route, a self-guided road trip to visit cacao farms. “This is an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from other South American countries,” says Stefano Iannuzzelli, a spokesperson for Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism.

My desire to see the Land of Chocolate is what brings me to Iza’s farm. It’s a journey—200 miles east of Quito to the small city of El Coca, then three hours by guided motorized canoe down the Napo River, a muddy tributary of the Amazon.

After I’ve tasted that freshly harvested Nacional seed, Iza collects a stash of healthy pods for me. I bring these back to Minga Lodge, an eco-resort operated by ME to WE, a Canadian-based organization that works with the indigenous communities—the Mondaña, Los Rios, and Kanambu—in Ecuador’s cacao-growing region. When I reach the lodge, I head straight to an open fire and drop the beans into a small roasting pan. I allow them to cool just long enough before peeling and mashing them; then I mix the paste with milk and sugar.

Later that evening, after dinner, the resort’s chef drizzles the chocolate over freshly baked banana bread. I watch my fellow guests, who are for the first time taking in the aroma of Nacional. As Iannuzzelli told me earlier, “Nacional cacao is a treasure that can be found only here, and we want people to come and be a part of it.” Mission accomplished: The diners’ faces light up with surprise and satisfaction as they taste traces of orange blossom, the minerals of the earth, the essence of the fruit. What chocolate is supposed to be.

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