El Conquistqdor Francisco de Orellana

El Conquistqdor Francisco de Orellana
The Conquistador who put the Amazaon baisn "on the map"....Francisco Orellana

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My second favorite topic....CHOCOLATE...Ecuador: El Republica del Cacao

Reconnecting cacao with chocolate

Publicado el 20/Septiembre/2011 | 10:59
By Lance Brashear 

The "Manual de la Cocinera," a cookbook published in Quito in the 1800s, offers one recipe for chocolate: an ice cream, under the section of "Helados Franceses," or French ice cream.

It may seem ironic that a French recipe for chocolate  would end up in a local, Ecuadorian  cookbook when the raw material for chocolate – the cocoa bean – is found naturally in Ecuador, not France.  But this  book, which was re-published last year by the city of Quito, offering  a testament to the cooking techniques of the time,  illustrates a reality from the 19th century:  the disconnect that had already developed between the final product, chocolate, and its raw material, cocoa.

It is a reality that  still persists today, but in recent years, Ecuador – the world's greatest producer of fine or flavor  chocolate beans – has worked hard to re-establish the link between cocoa and chocolate and gain recognition denied it for so very long.

The Changing Chocolate Scene

Author and chocolate expert Maricel Presilla, who visited Ecuador earlier this year, says that, "Ninety percent of the history of chocolate is the history of a drink."  More specifically, she says that before 1890 most recipes for chocolate were in liquid form.  And though the popularity of solid chocolate desserts would surpass drinks in the 20th century, recipes would continue to  characterize   chocolate in one of two ways: unsweetened and semi-sweet.

But as a sign of the times, today we commonly find recipes such as the chocolate fudge cake in the "1001 Foods to Die For," (McMeel Publishing), which lists as its chocolate ingredient: "bitter sweet chocolate, minimum 70% cocoa solids."

And if you read Presilla’s book, "The New Taste of Chocolate (Revised) A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes," she offers her recipe for Deep Chocolate Torte using dark chocolate: "preferably El Rey Bucare (58.5% cacao), Callebaut (56% cacao), or Cacao Barry Equateur (60% cacao), finely chopped."

The use and understanding of chocolate has become more sophisticated in recent years thanks, in part, to Presilla, herself.

Presilla's family tree is rooted in cocoa.  Her grandparents grew cocoa on the eastern tip of Cuba.  When she was young she relocated to the United States.  In the 1980s Presilla was hired by El Rey Chocolates to help re-establish a connection in the food community between cocoa beans and chocolate.

"What they wanted was to conquer the markets through chefs and food writers…I traveled all over Venezuela by plane with the owners of the company.  We invited chefs from all over the U.S. to come."

She says that all of the great chefs of the time knew nothing about cocoa.  "They didn't understand why the flavor was the way it was.  They didn't make the relationship between cacao and the flavor."

A Brief History of Cocoa

In her book, Presilla says that cocoa dealers from the earliest times, the Aztecs and the Mayans,  understood the nuances of cocoa and often identified beans by  the region from which they came.   The quality of the bean could be tasted in the final product, the chocolate, to which spices were always added for flavor.

After the Spanish discovery  of cocoa in the 16th century, chocoloate soon became an aristocratic drink in European society.  In the  19th century it became industrialized. Spices were abandoned, milk and sugar were added, and - like a child who thinks milk comes from the supermarket  rather than the cow - chocolate became something whose origins were generally nebulous.

Republic of Cocoa

Presilla worked to break down the barriers between chocolate and cocoa with a special kind of bean.  She used "criollo" cocoa, a chocolate genetically identified as a   "fine or flavor," bean.

The term fine or flavor is used by the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) to distinguish from  bulk beans,  varieties that have a chocolate flavor, but lack certain properties, or tasting notes, found in fine or flavor beans.

Flavor beans represent a very small percentage of world cacao production – only five percent -   but the majority of those beans, 60 to 70 percent, are grown in Ecuador.  Ecuador, though,  is still principally an exporter of raw material.  Antonio Orozco, economist with the National Association of Cacao Exporters in Ecuador estimates  that only about three percent of the total production of cacao actually remains in Ecuador for the production of chocolate.  Last year, Ecuador exported an estimated 137,000 metric tons of cacao valued at more than $401 million.

Ecuadorian cocoa is  commonly known (and genetically classified) as "nacional," or national cocoa.   It  is often referred to as "cacao arriba," (arriba means 'up' in Spanish), a name derived from the location of its discovery centuries ago, "up river," from the coastal port city of  Guayaquil, along the Guayas River in the area of present day Manabi and Los Rios Provinces.

Lourdes Delgado, cocoa expert and producer of the Chchukululu Chocolate brand in Ecuador says arriba cocoa is described as having a floral and fruity fragrance and taste – distinguishable from cocoa grown in other places.  "[Arriba] starts with something special – special conditions to grow cocoa.  As a result we have a special product."

Leonor Zambrano, who works for the NGO, Conservacion y Desarrollo, talks of the  "terroir" of  chocolate,  a French word that refers to the characteristics of a certain geographical place that bestow particular qualities upon chocolate, much like the terroir of wine, tea, or coffee.

Conservacion y Desarrollo recently sponsored the first "Aromas and Flavors of Chocolate of Ecuador," Fair  with 11 cocoa growers associations at the National Agriculture Research Institute's (INIAP) Pichilingue Experimental Station, near Quevedo, Ecuador.  The organization is empowering growers who already produce great cocoa beans, to take their product and knowledge further

Alfredo Dueñas, also with Conservacion y Desarollos, says, "The market for Ecuadorian cacao is not the real problem [for the growers] .  Every single bean is sold already.  So what we are trying to find is better

markets, better options."   This includes the creation of chocolate bars to market the flavors, which are particular to each association, using symbolic packaging that lends identity to their final product.

A New Chocolate RepublicWhat Conservacion y Desarollo are showing is that countries like Ecuador, with their fine cocoa, are the reason countries like France have historically produced great chocolate.  But today the line between cocoa and chocolate producers is blurring.

Earlier this year the French Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with organizations like the Programa de Desarollo Economico Local (Prodel - a division of USAID), and local producers, hosted the "Salon de Chocolate,"a local, chocolate trade show, taking its lead from the French "Salon du Chocolat," an international chocolate show held annually in France

Edgar Leon, one of the event's coordinators in Quito says, "The Salon de Chocolate has been organized because Ecuador is one of the countries with the greatest quality of cocoa in the world and recently many producers of Ecuadorian chocolate are positioning their product as one of the best in the world."

Mauricio Freire, general manager for Hoja Verde,  a producer and exporter of fine chocolate, put it succinctly: "We want to convert from being a Republic of Cocoa to a Republic of Chocolate.  We have this capacity and quality."

Other producers have made inroads, not only into foreign markets, but into the industry's greatest halls of influence.

Drop by, unannounced, to the office of Santiago Peralta, founder of Pacari Chocolate, and you find scattered among the office clutter, raw cocoa beans and samples of different cocoa powders.  Peralta is wired and excited, perhaps because he is continually sampling the product he loves, or maybe because his  passion is to produce it like nobody else ever has.

From their beginnings less than ten years ago, Pacari has built a brand that competes with the best chocolates found worldwide.  He quickly turns to his computer to show me the website www.seventypercent.com, developed by famed, chocolate critic Martin Christy.  He scrolls down to the top dark bar evaluations, where Pacari Raw Chocolate 70% is currently in third place, sandwiched between the products from the Italian brand Domori and the French, Valrhona.

Peralta has helped to re-connect cocoa and chocolate, in part, with the help of the Danish government who, in 2009, sponsored a book about Pacari, to help showcase in Denmark the origins of chocolate.  Called "Raw Chocolate, Naked Passion," the book removes some of the mystery about chocolate and presents cocoa for what it is: an agricultural product.

Peralta talks about the book with pride:  "What we wanted to show is Ecuador…how the people live from cocoa…not the chocolate that is sensual and all that, but the worker sweating…to show the reality that is behind the chocolate."

And like Presilla, Peralta, too, saw a detachment between cocoa and chocolate, but not in the kitchen; he witnessed it in the fields among the growers in coastal, Esmeraldas Province.  "When we went  for the first time [to Esmeraldas] they saw chocolate for the first time in their lives…people that for four or five generations have produced cocoa, but never had eaten chocolate…they knew about it, but had never tried chocolate."

The French Connection RemainsAcross from the Pacari stand at the Salon de Chocolate was someone whose presence perhaps more than any other, speaks to the ongoing transformation  of  the  chocolate culture in Ecuador.

Cyril Prudhomme is a French pastry chef who came to Ecuador five years ago as an instructor in gastronomy at San Francisco University and worked as head chef at the Ambrosia chocolate and pastry shop near campus.  This week he is celebrating the grand opening of Cyril Boutique, a new chocolate and pastry shop in Quito. "This is something new in Ecuador…at a high level and totally French," he says. 

"In France there exists an art for pastry, for a lot of things….we do not go to the pastry shop just to purchase a cake.

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