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Colombia, and Why I’ve (Mostly) Given up Chocolate (For Now)

Making artisanal chocolate in Ecuador.

On the train ride to Machu Picchu, I found myself enveloped in the warm conversation of several Colombians sitting around my table. Having spent the last few days alone in Ollantaytambo, one of the lovely, small Incan villages in the Sacred Valley, I welcomed the prospect of connecting with people from a country I had such fond memories of.

After a few minutes listening to them speak in Spanish, I introduced myself. Patty, the woman sitting across from me, asked what I did for a living. I told her I was an English teacher and a writer. And that I was really interested in chocolate at the moment.

Her attractive dark eyes widened. Her sister and brother-in-law were getting into organic, artisanal chocolate making, she explained. “You should come visit and try the chocolate!” We exchanged contact information and a few months later, while thinking about chocolate in Argentina, I decided to take up her offer.

The thought of returning to Colombia, the country in which I’d started my journey in August of 2018, pleased me. I couldn’t wait to see the emerald green mountains again, and my friends in Medellín.

My friend Patty, at the university where she works as a professor outside of
Bogotá.

After meeting up with Patty my first day there, we went to her family home in Bogotá, where her mother lived, and where the family convened on Sunday afternoons after church to make chocolate. Inside the two-story townhouse in a quiet neighborhood, they brought me to a bedroom on the second floor. A balcony looked out onto a garden and patio where a coffee tree grew along with other fruit trees and flowers.

Gloria–Patty’s sister– and her husband Alberto, toasting cacao beans in the kitchen.

After church the next day Patty’s sister and brother-in-law began the chocolate making by toasting beans in a pan on the stove. After the toasting was finished, we sat at the dining room table to peel off the shells. Then we put the beans into a metal grinder to make a peanut butter like paste. We processed the paste three times, until it became shiny and syrupy enough to pour into heart-shaped molds.

Foreground: Cacao beans ready to be ground into a paste. Background: coffee tree in the courtyard.

This is artisanal style chocolate. There’s no sugar added, and no time spent conching, refining, or tempering, processes normally important in chocolate making. You can read about refining and conching here, shared by one of my favorite chocolate blogs, Chocolate Alchemy. Refining happens over one or two days–depending on how smooth you want your chocolate; conching is a heating and stirring process that has more to do with teasing out of specific flavors and adding in additional flavors, such as vanilla or milk powder, to the chocolate. Tempering is the process by which you heat and slowly cool chocolate to a specific temperature so that it crystallizes in a way that produces a bar with good shine and snap. I enjoyed this video on tempering and what it does for chocolate made by the French Cooking Guy, Alex.

Sunday afternoon chocolate making.

The experience of taking an afternoon to make chocolate from scratch is unforgettable. The smell, the textures, the peeling process is delightful—though long.

The following weekend, Patty drove me with her mother four hours southwest of Bogotá to Los Llanos, an agricultural region where her father manages a small farm. After he showed me the cacao and mandarin trees on his land, a trail of ducklings followed him as he walked around the house. He also showed me a pile of beans that’d been fermented and dried, now ready for roasting.

Pile of fermenting cacao beans.

The family enjoyed fresh hot chocolate with slices of mozzarella-like cheese—and no sugar. The bitterness was a bit too much for me, and I felt a bit shamed as the family scrounged around the kitchen at the farm to find a bit of sugar for me to add.

We spent the entire day Sunday together driving around. I felt like I was part of the family. First we ate a hearty breakfast consisting of beef and fish stew and patacones—the latter is mashed, flattened and fried plantains. We drank espressos at Patty’s father’s favorite café and then we visited the cacao farms. Besides Patty’s family farm, we went to Granja Rinconcito, where the cacao beans recently won a chocolate award in Colombia. Strikingly—and as per the norm—the caretaker, the farmer on site, had never tasted chocolate made from his beans.

Patty’s father showing me a cacao tree on his farm.

The style of fermentation in both the cacao farms I visited is done in a mountain-like heap under heavy plastic coverings. Read this article from the Chocolate Journalist and read about what fermentation is, and how it affects flavor.

In Bogotá, I had the chance to peruse a few independent coffee roasting shops and find locally made chocolate brands there. Lök Chocolate, a French-owned company with a factory in Bogotá makes a smooth and easy to enjoy 70% dark chocolate bar. It was the first chocolate bar I’d eaten since Ecuador that I wanted to keep eating (I often gave away the chocolate I bought to people at my hostels because I couldn’t finish the bars).

Check out this fabulous bar of dark chocolate! (Pardon the coffee shop background noise).

So far my favorite Colombian brand has been Caofiori’s 70%–they have a wonderfully smooth mouthfeel, appealing cacao brown color, and a malty, caramel, steady flavor. Carlota Chocolat 72% Nariño region was also very good, smooth, fruity, with a bit of honey.

I still like chocolate, just not every day.

When I went to a coffee shop the other day and saw they had Dandelion Chocolate, a craft brand based out of California, on display at $10 a bar, I shrugged and passed by. Didn’t feel like having chocolate. I still haven’t bought a bar since coming home—though I did enjoy some 70% Equal Exchange chocolate chips, which I used to make cookies for a friend. But after those were finished I did not buy more.

I’ve been asked by nearly everyone since returning to Minneapolis how this ambivalence is possible. I’m the one who used to eat a bar a day of 70% dark for the past ten years. Perhaps I overdid it; after all, I tried a lot of chocolate–mostly because I was searching for a good bar of it.

Below: Much of the chocolate I tried while traveling in South America. These bars represent every country I visited except for Brazil. Unfortunately, I did not like most of them.

Still, when I taste a dark chocolate with a flavor that is pleasing to me—then YES, I enjoy it. But overall, my desire for chocolate has waned as my preference has become more refined. So much chocolate today has a flat and short flavor profile, contains vanilla—a loud ingredient that covers more than it adds—and soy lecithin, which also muddies the true flavor tones of a piece of a chocolate.

The other odd thing? I started to get itchy, burning lips and mouth after eating dark chocolate, and a stomachache soon after. So perhaps it’s time to back off for a bit and enjoy the other fruits of the earth.

Chocolate dreams to you,
Cici Woolf

At Patty’s house, with my favorite dog in the world, Cookies.
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The Melody of Chocolate

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Freshly roasted Nacional cacao beans, Finca Sarita, Ecuador.

“Hershey’s was really all we had in my small town,” I explain to Servio Pachard Vera, a cacao farmer in the coastal region of Ecuador called Manabí, as we are walking through his grove of cacao trees.

It’s hot, probably in the 80s, and I’m glad for the taller fruit trees—breadfruit, mango, orange trees, for example—that shade us on our walk through his permaculture farm.

Servio laughs. “Really?”

We pause so I can pose for a picture in front of one of the cacao trees that is genetically pure Nacional—a rare variety that many, including Servio, claim has a superior flavor profile to other types of cacao. Then he cuts off a fruit with his machete, slices it open and hands it to me.

Finca Sarita, San Miguel de Sarampion
A baby Nacional cacao fruit, on a genetically pure Nacional tree. It will grow into a yellow pod.

I take the pod, which is just a tad smaller than a football, and look at it. I’ve done enough chocolate tours in Ecuador to be familiar now with the fruit. The beans are coated in deliciously tangy white pulp, and I pop several at once into my mouth. “I was allowed to buy one Hershey bar after church on Sundays. And I loved it as a kid, of course.” Feeling the need to explain my evolved taste for chocolate, I quickly tell him, “But now I prefer dark chocolate, 70-80%.”

He smiles kindly at this, and then points at the white webbing left in the fruit pod I’d just emptied. “This is called the placenta,” he explains. “When I was growing up, all the women would sit harvesting the fruit, which was piled high by the men who’d cut it from the trees with machetes. I’d come along, pluck up a pod and eat the placenta.”

“Placenta,” I say with a slight grimace.

“Hershey’s,” he says, laughing ridiculously.

We walk by a tree with a purplish pod, a very beautiful hue in fact. “Is this also a Criollo?” I ask, since he’d already pointed one out earlier.

He explains it is a Criollo, but a mix, because it was planted with a seed and cross-pollinated by other varieties.

“Lots of people like Criollo, correct?” I ask.

“Yes, yes, of course. This type has fruity flavors, in contrast to the Nacional cacao, which has more floral flavors.” It is more difficult to cultivate cacao with more floral flavors, he explains. “The taste is not so different between them, but the Criollo blend is shorter.” He pops a finger from his mouth to emphasize this shortness. “With Nacional, a melody begins in your mouth.” He traces the air lightly, as if the melody was floating like a thread. “Floral, floral, floral, floral, fruity, fruity, floral, floral, floral…” and his voice trails off. “All my life I’ve been tasting chocolate, and I recognize this melody.”

“So you like Nacional the most?” I ask.

“Of course. Because it is the best,” Servio answers without hesitation.

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Servio with the Fermentation Boxes. Each is filled with a specific colony of bacteria, which are important for developing the flavor of the beans.

“What about Ghiradelli, and Lindt chocolate? Have you tried these? They’re very popular in the United States right now, but I don’t like them so much anymore. They don’t taste like much. Except oil.” What I mean is added, cheaper alternative oils used to make smooth, industrial chocolate, such as palm oil.

He tilts his head to the side, ponders the empty fruit pod in his hand, and begins talking, without really answering the question. “Imagine everyone eats Hershey’s, like you did, growing up. They get used to a certain type of flavor, texture. They get used to a certain kind of sugary taste. Or a certain very smooth taste. One with only 20% cacao. The rest, of it is sugar, milk, and soy lecithin. But this chocolate has a very short, flat flavor.”

“Hmmm,” I say, “People like a smooth chocolate.”

He also explained it was hard to know what cacao bean was really being used; for example, the purer Nacional was rare, and hybrid varieties, whose flavor profiles vary, tended to be much more common. “And yet, you’ll see chocolate being sold here all over that’s called Nacional, or Arriba, or Fino de Aroma, even if it isn’t genetically very pure,” he said. “You can taste that it’s not pure Nacional.” (Nacional is also referred to as Arriba or Fino de Aroma.)

“It has melodia,” reiterates Servio, tracing the invisible song in the air.

“Would this be a melody for violin? Or for cello?” I ask. “Or merengue?”

“Ah, ah, ah,” he says. After a moment, he sings a diddy in an impressive falsetto. “A cello,” he says.

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Bad Beans, normally picked out by hand. The kind that American companies buy in bulk. (By the way–those are To’ak beans Servio is harvesting, for those of you familiar with that company!)

He keeps walking, and we sit down at a table where he shows me how to bite the top off an orange and drain out the fruit juice from inside. We sit like this, with oranges pressed to our faces, drinking the juice. When we’ve sucked dry our oranges, he tells me the story of cacao farming in Ecuador. How CCN-51, a highly productive hybrid, is sold to impoverished cacao farmers, and how it’s like growing corn in the US, except there are no subsidies.

“They barely get by. They’re stuck in a cycle,” he says. “They invest in the plants, which, yes, have a very high yield. But they get paid very little, and it doesn’t matter what the beans look like, or whether they are even fermented.” His forehead creases a bit. “The problem is, most clients will buy the same bulk beans from Ivory Coast or Ghana for even cheaper. So it isn’t good for cacao farmers here in Ecuador to cultivate CCN-51.”

I tell Servio that a community in the Amazon I stayed with had begun to plant cacao. I was excited for them. But when I’d asked what type of cacao they were planting, they had no idea. “I suppose it was CCN-51, correct?”

Servio sighed. “If they really don’t know what they’re planting, then yes. And that’s a problem. The viveros, the intermediarios, they come by selling hybrids—usually CCN-51–and sell them to whoever will buy them. The problem is that the soil should be analyzed, so that farmer knows which cacao variety is best for his plot. Much of the time, the trees fail, and the farmer loses the money.”

I hate to hear this. I wonder now whether Carlos, the man doing the planting in the community I was staying in, had the time to check up on the details for the cacao. I hope he did. And I hope the cacao seedlings, no matter what kind they are, make it, and produce a yield for him.

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Finca Sarita is in San Miguel de Sarampión, located about 20 minutes from Calceta, in the Manabí province of Ecuador.

After resting a bit in my treehouse, which is located up two sets of ladders in a mango tree–a somewhat dizzying yet thrilling height–we make chocolate, artisan-style.

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Servio’s son and daughter get a fire going in an outdoor oven which consists of clay and ashes–the kind used by his family for over a century. Servio puts the beans in a pan with sand, and we toast them for about twenty minutes. After that, we let them cool, go sit at the table, and peel off the husks, chatting the whole time. Then we grind up the beans into a thick paste, like peanut butter, and eat it on bananas ripened on a tree nearby.

Peeling and grinding cacao beans into a chocolate paste from Nacional beans, perfectly fermented, is a flavor experience unlike any I’ve had before. I’m not certain it will be possible to go back to Hershey’s—I’ve already written about the Point of No Return when it comes to Spanish; I think I have reached it when it comes to Chocolate.

Thanks Servio, for the wonderful tour of your farm, and for teaching me about chocolate.

For more information on Nacional cacao and its preservation see:

www.nacionalcacaoconservation.org

www.toakchocolate.com/blogs/news

www.hcpcacao.org  (Heirloom Cacao Preservation)

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Mindo Chocolate & the City of Trees

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One of the many waterfalls in Mindo Cloud Forest.

Vast stands of dark green trees fill my body with joy. Literal, transcendent joy; the kind that relaxes and clears your spirit. Welcome to Mindo, Ecuador, a city of clouded trees, concerts of frogs, and chocolate factories.

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Morning Clouds over Mindo.

After spending three weeks in Medellín, Colombia, and then two nights in busy, dry, bustling Quito, Mindo has been a welcome respite, and a reminder of the kind of place which brings me a literal, visceral peace. Riding the tarabita (cable car) over the misted forest to a hiking trail filled with cascades, I could hardly muster a movement except to let my jaw drop, a cliché but a true one, so positively stunned with awe I was by the thousands of tree inhabitants of this place.

Tree inhabitants! A city of trees, so verdant, so enrobed in mist. I didn’t mind the rain after I began the hike; given the arduous nature of the hike, a light mist brought relief.

I’ve had the privilege to visit many crowded tree cities, and while walking this trail my mind immediately connected to the store of images of all the other forests I’ve visited: jungles in Costa Rica and Guatemala, the hovering giant Redwoods of California, towering pines in Oregon, the cedar, birch and pine stands in northern Minnesota, and finally, the gnarled, mystical oak groves of my youth.

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Take the Tarabita for a ride over a verdant city of trees.

Perhaps it is true that being in a place that so resonates with your soul can more easily bring you clarity where before there was just an internal mess; for me this was true. When I sat down for hot chocolate, a bolt of understanding unfolded in my mind of what I needed to do in the coming years, of what I hope to achieve in this one life I have been given.

Yet we live lives of juxtaposition. While in one part of my being I felt peace, in another, I felt restlessness, and unease. Tomorrow I’m headed into one of the last empires of tree: the Amazon basin. When someone asked me why I was going there (so many bugs, and it’s hot!—to which I always reply, hello, I’m from Minnesota, where we inhale clouds of mosquitoes in the summers), why I wanted to visit, I answered: “I want to see the Amazon before it’s gone.”

Pessimistic answer, I suppose, but what else can I say, when deforestation continues to destroy and encroach on this precious parcel of forest? When mining companies and logging companies continue to buy up land from indigenous communities, their economic clout no match for a community whose lives flourished before, but now, relative to the economic status quo, are considered low-income, with few means, other than the growing ecotourism trade, to keep their communities in tact?

As I continue to travel and interact with other travelers, I observe more keenly how complexly rigid our world is, and how difficult to change, whether that be the wages of the cacao farmer for “fair trade” and “organic” beans (see below for more on this), or the campesinos in Mexico trying to change their lives for the better but are blocked by corrupt government practices once they are considered “leftist”.

Poverty continues to exist for the vast majority of people in the world; misery was the precise term a French journalist described the situation to me in Colombia; a desperate way of living for many that cannot change under the system of commerce and trade implemented by the corporations that control our lives.

A system under which cacao farmers never taste a finished chocolate product made from the fruit they grow; a system under which locals who welcome foreigners into their homes and lands will likely never visit their guests in their own countries and experience the wonder of travel for themselves; a system in which TVs fill restaurants and parade images of cars, homes, and the splendor of consumerism before the eyes of those will never have a chance to own those very things.

I look to the silent mass of trees for an answer, and though I receive their peaceful blessing for a moment, and a bit of clarity on my own life’s direction, I do not get any answers for the human condition, other than to offer what tools I have, my language for those who want to learn it; and to continue traveling as a guest in another’s home, a guest who is grateful for the opportunity to visit other lands and peoples. I am constantly reminded of the necessity to live with the kind of integrity molded and informed by the people I meet and the circumstances I observe, circumstance which include some of the world’s harshest realities.

Visit Mindo Chocolate Factory for more information on the cultivation of cacao in Ecuador. Jose and his wife Barbara own the factory, and buy fruit directly from farmers in the area around Mindo. While their products are not packaged “organic” or “fair trade”, they deal in Direct Trade, a practice most chocolate farmers and chocolate producers are moving towards, as the labels “fair trade” can be bought and often do not reflect fair wages. Cacao farmers tend to live on very little, even though their product is one of the highest demand products in the world. Additionally, farmers tend not to be able to afford the “organic” label as it requires a yearly payment to maintain, but large groups of farmers sometimes can get the certification for their farms in bulk. See here for Mindo chocolates, which you can purchase online in the United States.