Connecting With The Cocoa: Tim's Journey to Ecuador
Posted on July 21 2017
A few months ago I was invited to visit one of our primary chocolate supplier's production facility located in the capital city of Quito, Ecuador. Little did I know what else Republica De Cacao had in store for the group of bakers, chocolatiers and pastry chefs from all walks of life and business. I was lucky enough to be on a similar trip with Republica’s parent company, Valrhona to the Dominican Republic a while back so I was familiar with adventures like this. But, I was mistaken as this trip had a real “boots on the ground” feeling to it. While I felt the Valrhona trip was very informative, it was pretty posh. Republica’s trip had all the basic comforts covered but the intimate interactions with the producers, farmers and growers assembled was the most memorable part and really connected me with chocolate to a deeper level.
This trip stretched from the beautiful South American coast all the way to base of the Andes Mountains in just four days. It was precisely planned to fit in as much as possible to really give us a look at what it takes to make chocolate to Republica’s high and delicious standards. Experiencing first hand the raw ingredients, the rigorous production techniques, and the people that truly make it happen along the way was an amazing experience.
Our first stop was the Plantation Los Cuatro Hermanos. We started with a tour of this micro cocoa plantation, just a few acres in size. Having seen cocoa plantations before I had a working familiarity of the importance of soil, rainfall, sunlight, etc. to cocoa trees and production. But, this farmer and a handful of his family members really showed us what it took to maintain them. I am talking maintenance by hand, no equipment here. The knowledge and understanding of the trees was without match. The timing and selective process of pruning was basically a craft perfected by the farmers. After this strict monitoring of the cocoa trees, it would be time to pick the small football-sized pods, mostly a deep shade of red in color. We then followed the same path as the fresh picked cocoa to the collection center in Vinces, a city in the Los Ríos Province (also referred to as "Little Paris" due to a scaled down version of the Eiffel Tower located downtown). It was at this location that cocoa starts its long and intricate process to transforming what we know as chocolate. The beans are separated from the pods and put into a tall stack of large wooden crates, this carefully begins the process of fermentation. This stack is designed with the newest beans at the top and raking the beans slowly down over the course of a couple days to the bottom crates. After fermentation, the beans finally make their way to be dried in the sun in large rolling beds which are moved in and out of sunlight as needed to properly dry. Once this process is complete, the beans are then sorted and bagged into large burlap sacks and sent to the production factory in the capital of Quito. There is strict labeling throughout each process to insure origin and quality.
The next day, we turned our attention to another important ingredient used in chocolate, milk. This single, 2-hour adventure to Turucucho would have made the whole trip worth it alone. While it was quite a trek on the winding roads up to the tiniest of villages, we finally arrived to a lush picturesque valley early in the morning...like 5 o’clock early. At that time, the valley was covered in fog and we could see about 20 cows slowly grazing in the distance. Our main reason for visiting this site was to see how the milk is gathered and processed right on site at the farm and collection area. The first item on the agenda? You guessed it, tending to the task at hand, milking a cow. Now, in full disclosure, I have milked a cow once before but not at the base of the majestic Andes Mountains so needless to say, I was all over the opportunity. As many people know (or would guess), this isn’t easy and is hard work on many levels. Once milk is accumulated, the fresh, warm milk is then carried by hand in old-school metal jugs probably a half mile to the collection area.
This small facility feels like a buzzing hub and is literally the entire area's livelihood. About 20 farmers, some on bikes and some on horses brought their own milk to be measured and pasteurized right there on the spot. The end product is eventually turned to powder later and taken to Quito for production. Seeing the process first hand was an eye-opener especially since (and by lucky chance) we had some finished White Chocolate with us which is the same White Chocolate we use solely at Gearharts. Connecting this experience with same chocolate we use truly gives a new and refreshed perspective. Plus, getting to taste it on site an added bonus, but then a funny thing happened, as we were happily sampling away we had a realization. A particular flavor stood out, though not dominating, it was there. It was grass. These cows graze only on a specific grass in this area, call them picky but this subtle yet very distinct flavor was delicious. I admit, I normally am a skeptic with this kind of stuff but this specific grass note was as clear as day, so much so, I haven’t been able to eat that particular chocolate without noticing it since. As we were leaving something else unexpected happened. The fog cleared and right there in front of us Cayembe came into view. This towering mountain ranks as Ecuador's third highest and a not-so active volcano to boot. And the good news kept coming, it has not erupted since March 1786, time was indeed on our side. None of us had any idea that there was a majestic snow-capped volcano in the distance the whole time. I mean right there! It was one of those moments that as a traveler, you just simply do not forget.
The last leg of our journey consisted of a visit to a sugar plantation and later a tour of the Republica de Cacao production facility. The sugar plantation in Pacto is known for Panela, an unrefined whole cane sugar, made from the evaporation of sugarcane juice and typical of this region of Ecuador. Our tour of the plantation was the "start to finish" kind that stretched from the cane fields all the way to the finished product.
There was so much to see and take in but two main highlights rise from the rest. One, we got to see how pressed sugarcane juice is crystallized and its end product is what we use on an everyday basis here in the states. I will never forget that sweet smell of caramelizing sugar, which I was reminded several days later when putting on the jacket I wore that morning. And two, we enjoyed a wonderfully refreshing drink made with freshly squeezed sugarcane, lime and a house-made moonshine also made from sugarcane. A much-needed respite from the heat of the day. This will be a drink I will try to recreate eternally.
Back to Quito, our trip wrapped up with a tour of the chocolate making process at Republica, which was impressive to say the least. Although we are detailed and take time to make our own Gearharts confections, I was amazed at Republica's level of care taken during each step of production. From the sorting, roasting, conching to tempering the chocolate, each process was masterfully executed and creates an incredibly high standard. This part of the trip was also a personal highlight for me as Republica's chocolatiers had been hard at work on creating a custom blend just for Gearharts and this was the unveiling! The samples of this blend did not disappoint and was the kind of stuff we could only dream of 10 years ago, but now dreams are reality and here I was, being able to witness the raw journey of our chocolate and also being able to have a say in an integral ingredient of our quality confections. Our standard high quality was a core belief from when we started 16 years ago and this high standard has separated us from the pack and still rings true today.
I am excited to have seen how this amazing chocolate is produced and thrilled to work with more of this top-quality chocolate going forward. I hope you love it as much we do (we certainly think you will) and enjoyed this glimpse into the world that makes it all possible!