Arrived in Quito, Ecuador, yesterday at 10am. By 1pm I was eating Guinea pig at the centre of the world with our Ecuadorian partner: Roberto of Golden Bean Cacao. Grilled guinea pig is a common street food here, a little difficult to enjoy with the head still on. A real pleasure to meet Roberto who has supplied us with pure Arriba cacao from north of Quito. This is Ecuador’s heirloom variety, locally it is reffered to as ‘Sabor Arriba’ which means a higher flavour. In ancient times it was known as golden cacao. This Easter we are making a golden egg with a natural edible gold spray using Roberto’s golden cacao.
As the road wound its way through dense cloud forest we discussed chocolate and politics, it starts to rain heavily and won’t stop until the following morning. Today the country is voting for local mayors, its a serious business, the fine for not voting is $40 US, and drinking is prohibited the night before. The farm is about 3 hours drive out of the city. Juan-Carlo and Roberto are in their early thirties, Roberto is responsible for logistics, marketing and getting the cacao and its unique story recognised. Juan-Carlo is a young, enthusiastic farmer overseeing the agricultural processes on the farm and working closely with Daniel who is a little older and lives on the farm with Sylvia and their children. Roberto and Juan-Carlo are the partners of Golden Bean, and they pay Daniel, Sylvia and others about 10% more than the local rate. I get a good impression, and present a single malt Islay whisky and a range of our best chocolate bars. They are kind, care passionately about, and are very proud of their farm. I am about to find out they have good reason to be.
On the way to the farm we had passed a lot of cacao plantations, this cacao was of a variety named CCN-51: Collection 51 of the farmer named Castro in his area Naranjal. The flavours from CCN are significantly inferior to the Arriba, and it is of no commercial interest to genuinely artesanal chocolate makers like The Chocolate Tree.
The three of us wound our way from the old wooden farmhouse down through the cacao groves on the surrounding land, continuing our introductions and beginning to talk about cacao. The rain continued to pour down, the air was sweet and humid, filled with the loud and various sounds of insects and birds. We walked for some time passing the big red CCN pods, and some young Arriba plantations that would be ready to fruit in a couple of years. The track took us down steeply deeper into a dense jungle.
The golden yellow Sabor Arriba fruit glinted through from behind the deep green leaves of the trees. The rain hit its surface and was softly running down through the curves, creating a sparkling droplet at its tip. Daniel cracked it open with his machete and we all began to suck the white flesh from the seeds. It was delicious, fresh and highly aromatic.
We opened various pods, collecting the seeds in a white bucket Daniel had brought with him. We talked about the difficulties of growing the Arriba compared to the CCN, the organic methods, the continuous pruning required, weed removal and the Arribas susceptability to diseases. Despite these challenges, the people here are committed to cacao Arriba. It is the golden fruit of their land to which they feel a deep connection, they choose to farm organically out of respect for the land. They also hope that the market for fine aroma cacao will grow, and that the investment into Sabor Arriba will provide them all with a better financial future. In the meantime CCN is the most popular choice for farmers because there is an increasing appetite for cheap cacao from the big multinational chocolate companies.
By the time we are making our way back up to the farmhouse it has turned dark, fireflys dance around us as we carefully follow Daniel back up the muddy slopes. Daniel planted the groves, he knows what to me is a dense and confusing forest like the back of his hand. Within an hour we make it back to the farmhouse where we can change out of our sodden clothes and boots. Sylvia joins us and we enjoy some of the chocolate and make a toast with the whisky. We say farewell to Daniel and Sylvia and on the way back stop by a neighbouring farm. Juan-Carlo wants to ask if we can visit them in the morning. They insist we join them immediately, so we skip dinner and drink with them into the early hours. They are also kind and passionate about their produce, they talk with vigour about the frustrating beurocracy of organic certification but its neccesity to compete in the export market to north America and Canada.
In the morning we return to the neighbouring farm, where we begin with a tour of the cacao processing equipment. When Roberto gets a bigger order than they have processing capacity for at their farm they seek the help of Mrs Elsa. She has a very nice step fermentation system, built from the local natural laurel wood. Careful fermentation of the cacao is absolutely key to making good chocolate. When cacao is fermenting it can take on flavours from the wooden boxes, just like whisky does from the barrel. After 6 days of fermentation, using the step system to introduce oxygen and mix the cacao every 2 days, it is moved to a purpose built drying facility. From the outside the drying hut looks like a polytunnel with walls, on entering you can see long tables at the side and in the middle. The tables have a thin netting as a surface, which allows air to surround the cacao. The cacao will dry here naturally for several days depending on the humidity, before it is gathered up into jute sacks ready for transport. We were guided around the farm by Mrs Elsa, what amazes me most is the variety of other fruits that are to be found growing alongside the cacao, an extensive list of colourful tropical fruits, most of which i have never seen before. These companion plants give unique flavours to the cacao: the terroir. The biodiversity on these working farms is truly wonderful, at one point I asked Juan-Carlo about a noise which sounded like the type of machine in Scotland used to spray water on the crops, it turned out to be an insect.
In the afternoon we travel to the local town where Juan-Carlo has a small agricultural shop trading in cacao and equipment. Here we are confronted with several large sacks of poorly fermented, poorly dried CCN stacked up on the road outside. On the way to the town we had also passed about 200kg of CCN drying out on the tarmac. This cacao has been treated with very little care for hygiene or quality, but it doesn’t matter because the buyer representing the big companies doesn t care about quality, only quantity. There is no incentive for the farmers to process the cacao well. I notice there is a pool of what looks like puke against one of the sacks on the street, shocked I point it out to Juan-Carlo who tells me it is water added to the cacao to increase the weight which is resulting in it oozing out of the bag. Although its not what I thought it was I remain shocked at the situation created by a market that has very little care for quality. Roberto tells me that dogs will sometimes urinate on the cheap cacao which is dried on the floor, think of that next time you tuck into some cheap chocolate.
For the CCN, or other poorly treated cacao prepared for export, the farmer should be (but is not always) paid the daily set New York Cocoa price. We checked it on the street using Roberto’s mobile phone, it was $2.90 per kg (US) that day, a higher than usual price due to the low supply from Ivory Coast, Africa. We pay Roberto $5.70 per kg for the Arriba cacao, that’s nearly double the New York price. This is a good feeling, to be rewarding genuine care with a much better rate. The problem we face is that the logistical cost of shipping, transport and beaurocracy for small quantities like 500kg (the big companies purchase 20 ton containers) nearly wiped out all of golden beans profits, and significantly increased our cost by about $1.45 per kg. Companies buying 20 tons will only increase their costs by about 8 cents. Keep in mind it costs Golden Bean much (much) more to process and care properly for the Arriba than it does to process poorly other cacao for the big export company. The reason quality doesn’t matter for the big companies is because they will over roast (burn) the beans, killing any germs along with any aromatic flavours. They will add plenty of sugar, milk, and additives to mask over the flavour of the cacao. When we make chocolate our aim is to express the unique and dazzling aromatic qualities with prestigous care at every step of the processing.
As we drive back to the airport the following day I discuss with Roberto all the techniques being used and the costs. We discuss innovations I have heard about and their potential to reduce cost without the comprimise of quality. We are both keen to grow our businesses; it is the best thing we can do for the people involved and the preservation of biodiversity in Ecuador. At the end of the day though the success of Golden Bean and The Chocolate Tree will come down to a choice by the consumer. It is a simple one of quality vs quantity. As Easter approaches the supermarket shelves will fill with mass produced, cheap chocolate made from cacao that dogs can urinate on. The Chocolate Tree will be fighting for it’s share of the market, producing luxury hand crafted eggs and bunnies from some of the best and most authentic cacao farms in the world. Although the farmers and the chocolate makers are working together closely to bring fine aroma chocolate to the market, ultimately its future is in the hands of consumer demand. Currently Ecuador exports around 70% bulk poorly processed cacao and only 30% Sabor Arriba.