When I went into the Amazon basin for a few weeks to teach English in an indigenous community, I made sure to pack a whisk and plenty of unsweetened cacao paste tablets so that I could have a hot chocolate every morning. That, along with rice, eggs, and ketchup were my staple foods.
One morning, while scratching the new welts on my ankles left from the itch mites who shared the tent with me, I stared down at my plastic cup of whisked chocolate and wondered if I shouldn’t do something more with this god food. After all, I was sitting in the Amazon jungle with a cup of the thick, pleasurable substance. It was the one consumable I couldn’t do without; it gave me a dose of comfort and enjoyment during my isolating and at times very uncomfortable jungle stay.
As if the gods divined my thoughts, a fellow school teacher, Gladys, walked by with papaya to share. While watching me whisk up a cup of hot chocolate for her and her daughter, she said, “Carlos is out planting cacao today.”
This piqued my curiosity. When Carlos walked by the hut to say “Good morning,” I asked him about his new project.
A grin spread easily across his face. “I planted cacao this morning!”
“That’s grand, that’s great,” I said quickly, and then paused before I asked, “And what kind of cacao?”
His grin fading, Carlos’ face wrinkled slightly. “I don’t really know, Cici. I don’t really know.”
I knew if it was a hybrid he was planting, it was not likely he’d get much money for it. And certainly those who would make craft chocolate and who would selectively pay well for cacao would not want the beans. “I see,” I responded carefully. “Wonderful. People love chocolate.”
As I lay in my tent at night, as I sat by my fire watching rice cook during the day, I kept thinking about chocolate. I needed to know more.
Back to Mindo, Land of Trees and Chocolate Factories
After I left the Amazon, I decided to rent a room in Mindo, so I could gaze at trees, write, and eat chocolate from El Quetzal, the chocolate factory I’d visited on a previous trip to Mindo, where I’d met Joe, the owner, and talked to him about direct trade and the plight of cacao production worldwide. Although I’d enjoyed Nacional cacao before thanks to a Minneapolis chocolate company called K’ul (now closed, unfortunately) which specialized in fine cacao single-origin bars, it was at Joe’s factory where I became aware of what Nacional actually stood for: fine, complex flavor,usually described as earthy and floral. I also was starting to learn that Nacional was in danger of becoming extinct, to be taken over by hybrid cacao cultivars that lacked in flavor complexity, namely CCN-51.
Once settled in Mindo, I decided to visit the other chocolate factory in town, Yumbos, which opened two years ago and has won awards for their 60% chocolate bars both years they’ve been operating. Sharif, my tour guide, started out by serving me with a bitter and thick, robust hot chocolate. He then gave a now somewhat familiar explanation of the two main varieties of cacao in Ecuador: CCN-51,which is high-yield, disease resistance hybrid with little taste complexity;and Nacional, Ecuador’s heirloom cacao, one that was almost wiped out in the early 20th century. Next, he showed me example equipment used to ferment beans—for demonstration purposes only, since fermentation happens at the cacao farm itself—and then the grinding and conching room, and then tempering room, where a woman was carefully filling plastic molds with tempered chocolate.
Claudia Ponce and Pierre Molinari, the owners of Yumbos, explained that they work with and support women cacao farmers in the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador. All of this information stimulated my interest in the chocolate industry, and led me to back up to El Quetzal to ask Joe about a chocolate making apprenticeship. While there, I got coffee and started searching for articles on Nacional cacao online. A series of blog posts by Jerry Toth, co-founder of To’ak Chocolate, appeared, and so for the next few hours, I immersed myself in an intriguing survey of genetic morphologies of cacao fruit and what typifies a Nacional cacao fruit.
When Joe came down to the café again, I mentioned what I was reading. He said, “Well, you should talk to Jerry yourself, because he’ll be here tomorrow, doing a test batch for his chocolate using our equipment.”
I’d never heard of To-ak Chocolate before and only had a vague sense of what the company was about, if only that it focused on making chocolate from an endangered variety of Nacional cacao.
Rare Nacional Cacao: Not a Nib is Wasted
The next day I found Jerry in the roasting and winnowing room with an employee of El Quetzal. Tall, lanky, wearing a hair net, he and a staff member were heavily invested in weighing the nibs they’d just finished roasting, cracking and winnowing, calculating how much to use for a test batch.
I introduced myself and we briefly chatted about his blog posts and the rareness of the kind of cacao he worked with. I’d briefly glimpsed the prices of the chocolate, which both stunned and intrigued me—and had this vaguely in mind while we spoke.
At one point Jerry scooped up some of the nibs and poured a generous amount in my hand to try. They were decadently earthy and complex—a cacao flavor I was only beginning to know and appreciate. In fact, the nibs were so rich I couldn’t finish them, and in a moment of classy awkwardness, I handed them back, saying, “I can’t finish them. But I don’t want to waste them, these nibs of gold.” I was about to drop them into the vat when Jerry shuffled his notebook from his hand, said, “Wait,” and collected the nibs before they dropped. He tipped his head back and finished them off.
After explaining that they were calculating the cacao mass percentage, the chocolate makers moved with an established test batch weight to another room where they ground the nibs into a paste—it has the consistency of freshly ground peanut butter. When Jerry came out, we sat for a few moments on the stairs, and between jotting notes and texting he answered all my pressing chocolate-related questions, such as, is it true that some cacao varieties have more theobromine in it than others (Yes, Nacional has more); and is Nacional the best kind of cacao out there, as in, is it better than Criollo (He paused and said, “I wouldn’t say the best—it’s not an objective science; but I like it best for many reasons. People love Criollo because it is gentle and fruity”).
We launched into a conversation about our hot chocolate habits. For Jerry, it’s a thick hot chocolate every morning in the jungle, usually with peanut butter, eggs, and sometimes oatmeal added in. I told him I’d been obsessed for years with a hot chocolate made with water and 70% chocolate, whisked until frothy. When it was the first thing I had in the morning, it gave me an exhilarating buzz without the crash of coffee.
A group of people touring the factory briefly cut into our conversation. When we resumed, I told him I was interested in making chocolate. He looked at me, perhaps in surprise or skepticism, and said, “But there’s no money in it.”
I laughed sadly and set my notepad down. “Really? All the things I love and want to do lead to poverty, then.”
“It is a creative work,” he concurred. “And you don’t generally make money doing art.” Later I would learn Jerry lives out of a suitcase, traveling between the jungle where he works with a group of farmers who cultivate the cacao used for his company’s chocolate bars, and Quito, where he’ll stay with his co-partner of the company, Carl, when they are making chocolate in the factory there.
“How did you decide to do chocolate?” I asked.
“I started making chocolate to help fund a forest conversation nonprofit I created, Third Alliance,” he explained. “I came to Ecuador to work in forest preservation.”
I did not forget this tidbit of information when I later perused the To’ak website—where I hadn’t seen this connection before.
The Taste of Chocolate
Coincidentally, I’d stumbled upon a Guardian article about Servio Parchard, the Harvest Master of To’ak’s cacao beans, and had already set up a time to go visit him. When I told Jerry this, he smiled and said, “Stay in the Mango House, if you’re not afraid of heights.” So I did just that, and at Servio’s, the chocolate was so good, you could eat it like peanut butter on a banana. (See here for my blog post on my stay at Servio’s farm.)
Servio’s homemade block of chocolate was so compelling that on my 5-hour bus ride back to Mindo from his farm I repeatedly opened the Tupperware in which it sat to simply smell. I could not get over the abundance of its aroma.
At hostels, I’d offer it to people for smelling, and they’d also stand amazed at its strength of complex aroma and nuttiness. Some people claimed it didn’t even smell like chocolate; and for those I offered small samples to, they claimed it hardly even tasted like chocolate the way they knew.
But everyone really liked it. And it made me wonder: What is chocolate supposed to taste like?
At this time, and even still now, I was and am just now beginning to encounter the vast possible sensory delights chocolate can offer, starting with Mindo Chocolate, Yumbo’s Chocolate, and then Servio’s homemade chocolate block.
To’ak Chocolate: Laphroaig Scotch-Infused Chocolate, and the “Rot” Harvest Bar
Given it was my birthday in October, and I hadn’t really properly celebrated it, I decided to splurge on To’ak Chocolate’s lovely $125 Chocolate and Art Tour in Quito, which took place in Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín’s richly decorated house overlooking the city.
A sumptuous tour, I’d say; I felt heady walking around the artist’s home, dreaming of the chocolate tasting that awaited me in the wine cellar at the end of the tour. The large, generous paintings of Guayasamín’s stimulated my mind;the light connection of the tour to the creativity of To’ak’s chocolate making process grew my anticipation for the tasting.
Carl Schweizer, Jerry’s partner who is originally from Austria, greeted me by the wine cellar wearing a smart suit and his hair swept back cleanly into a bun. His demeanor was a mix of austere intellectuality and open, warm nerdiness; the way he patiently went through the history of To’ak’s journey, the story behind the Nacional cacao bean, while I impulsively asked questions and detoured him constantly, was impressive.
Carl walked me through a lengthy albeit engrossing story of how To’ak Chocolate came into existence. After Jerry moved to Ecuador a decade ago and started a nonprofit dedicated to rainforest conservation, he became interested in making chocolate; he and Carl met up to discuss chocolate making; after that, Carl spoke with the anthropologist Francisco Valdez about a nearly extinct, rare variety of cacao called Nacional found on the reserve, which Valdez claimed at the time—and as of last month, is confirmed to be—the original cacao variety, evolved over thousands of years in the tropics of Ecuador. Jerry and Carl devised starting a chocolate company based on working with farmers to preserve this heirloom cacao,a flavor gift to the world. Once the company was started, the vision of preserving this cacao and cacao diversity while offering the world a luxury chocolate unlike any other out there solidified, and the company has not looked back since. To’ak Chocolate unites rainforest conversation, an ethical business model, and a tantalizing luxury chocolate.
Chocolate, Carl continued, especially a fine flavor cacao like Nacional, has over 800 flavor compounds—more diverse than wine—and offers a taste experience unique onto itself.
“What we realized is…chocolate tasting is eye-opening. It opens the door toward the senses…what’s so beautiful about this flavor complexity is that it only exists when we receive products from a healthy ecosystem.” He paused to let this sink in, and then said, as if telling a fairytale, his light German accent adding to the ambience of the mood, “If my daughter grew up in a world that’s black and white; everything would be in grayscale. But imagine that there are stories, lots of stories about the world of colors. So she breaks out and discovers the colors. Lost colors.”
“Yes,” I say, feeling the metaphor was apt in describing the spread of monoculture occurring today.
“This is what is going on with food diversity. It is becoming black and white—but we are pushing to expand diversity in flavor. We don’t talk a lot about it but it is what’s driving our project. Diversity is the DNA of our project. The world of fine flavor cacao versus industrial cacao. With industrial cacao, we lose flavor.”
By the time we started the tasting, I felt a little nervous. I had the odd fear that my taste buds would fail me (they did not, thank goodness). Per Carl’s instructions, I carefully picked up each chocolate sample with a bamboo tasting utensil and smelled them. Unfortunately the room temperature was just a bit too cool for me to experience the aroma properly through the nose, but once I put apiece on my tongue, the flavor experience opened wide, like a movie starting across a screen.
Sample number one was shockingly creamy and the first descriptors that came to mind were silky smooth, caramel, and milky. Sublime would be another word to use with this first sample. It sang like a Brahms cello piece—steady, strong, creamy, somewhat familiar and so much finer than any other chocolate I’d tasted.
“What percentage is this chocolate?” I asked, stunned. It didn’t even taste like dark chocolate.
“73% cacao,” Carl said. “It’s our Rain Harvest 2015 Light. What I like about our chocolates is that every time you try it, you discover something new. This chocolate has matured. It has this gentle acidity still there, red berries,cranberries. When I tasted it earlier, I even got a bit of plum.”
The second sample was wild. I put the sample on my tongue and felt like I was going for a ride—needed to hang on a bit. There was fruit, there was floral, and there were sharp peaks and drops. I could envision how dark this chocolate was; it had no caramel tameness. It finished bright, tannic. This was a wild tasting chocolate to me, and I liked it immensely. It reminded me vaguely of Stravinsky’s violin concerto—bright tones,harsh movements, interspersed with melodic segments. Highly stimulating, and intellectual.
Carl was watching me. “That would be the bar we made from beans during the worst climate year ever.”
“Really?”I asked, fascinated. The lingering profile was still settling into my tongue and throat.
Carl explained the beans were harvested during the El Niño year of 2016, when there was flooding in the cacao growing regions of Ecuador. A terroir unlike other years completely transformed the cacao beans’ personality.
“The Rot Harvest Bar,” I said, christening it.
“Or actually, our Rain Harvest 2016 El Niño,” he corrected. “It’s 78% cacao beans.”
The third sample, called Rain Harvest 2017, had the smooth tameness, and creaminess of the first, which gave my palette some respite. At 76% cacao mass, it was still mellow and creamy. And so completely different from the previous bar. Another cello piece, I’d venture.
The fourth bar nearly brought me to tears. It was smooth, it was delicate, it was mellow,it melted well, and it released a familiar, well-loved flavor onto my palette. “It has liquor in it?” I asked.
“Do I have to guess what?” I said, laughing.
“Scotch,” I said easily after letting it melt further.
“Yes. Can you taste the peatiness?”
“Indeed. I love it.” I had tears in my eyes by then, I was that excited. “But how did you do it?” The ingredients of each bar of To’ak chocolate are only cacao beans and sugar.
Carl smiled. “This is our Vintage 2015 Islay Cask, 73%, matured for 2 years in single malt Islay Laphroig barrels.”
“Incredible,”was all I could say as I finished the chocolates off with a sip of aged Don Julio tequila.
After I left the tasting, I wandered down to the Capilla del Hombre, and gazed up at the murals painted by Guayasamín, happily still enjoying the lingering taste of To’ak chocolate on my tongue.
The Point of No Return: the Finest Flavored Chocolate
Here in Peru I’m exploring chocolate as well, though I am disappointed so far. What to do when you bite into a single origin bar from Tumbe, by Chocomuseo, you find its texture a bit rough, and it melts into a flat waxy flavor, with nothing to offer, no symphony to caress you with? I’d say I had a bit of an existential crisis. That’s not to say I haven’t found some good flavors, but none can compare to what I experienced in Ecuador—so far.
Anyway. See for yourself: Go have yourself some good chocolate! Single origin, direct trade, bean-to-bar, and let it melt on your tongue to see what happens.
If you decide to invest in a To’ak chocolate bar, you invest not only in a disappearing heirloom cacao, but also a healthy business model, the conversation of rainforest, and some of the finest chocolate in the world. Your taste buds will certainly rejoice.
For more reading on the subject of food diversity and flavor, I suggest Simran Sethi’s “Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.”