I am a chocolate snob. Anything under 60% is just not chocolatey enough and between 70% and 85% is ideal.
And don’t even thinking about tainting chocolate with milk. That’s just repulsive.
Throughout much of South America, I’ve had a bit of a tough time finding high quality, vegan chocolate. After over a year on the continent, I know the best place to find it is the grocery store, usually the one that ends in the word “Maxi” or “Mega.” More often than not, the chocolate is locked up in a special cabinet, as though it were a very expensive bottle of Whisky, or it is located at a special checkout counter where you have to request the chocolate of choice.
Ecuador, however, Ecuador is the land of chocolate— a country with a hundreds-year-old history of cacao production that produces some of the finest chocolate in the world.
I knew Ecuador would make me a happy chocoholic, that it would never dream of making me spend 10 minutes locating my treat of choice. The country didn’t fail me. I could find chocolate everywhere.
I scoured the Interwebs in search of the best chocolate, and my results directed me to Pacari.
Pacari Chocolate: From Bean to Bar
Founded in 2002, Pacari, which means “nature” in the indigenous Kichwa language, works in direct trade with small-scale farmers, to whom they pay a living wage to produce organic and biodynamic premium chocolate. And best of all, for a vegan (or anyone else with a common allergy or specific diet, for that matter), Pacari chocolates are all soy, dairy, gluten, chemical and transgenic-free, so I don’t have to sift through the ingredients to find hidden dairy products.
One of our first stops in Quito was the Pacari chocolate store. Imagine: An entire store dedicated to chocolate. One wall stacks dozens of varieties of chocolate bars from the floor to the ceiling—mint, cacao nib, guayusa (an native Ecuadorian superfood tea), native blueberries, lemon verbena, and a host of other flavors using native plants. In addition to the multitude of chocolate bars, one can also find raw cacao powder, drinking chocolate powder, cocoa butter (a giant block for $8), cacao nibs, chocolate covered cocoa beans, and just about any other thing your chocolate heart could fantasize. It’s a good thing I travel by bike.
Pacari has won 128 international prizes in recognition of their chocolate, including the World’s Best Chocolate in several categories.
Pacari prides themselves on paying the highest price to cocoa producers, supporting the conservation of diverse cropping ecosystems and maintaining a good relationship with farmers’ communities. A chocolate brand that practices social responsibility, sustainability and direct trade with small-scale farmers and incorporates native plants and ingredients into its products? Well, we just had to arrange a tour.
Puebla de Cacao y Chocolate Santa Rita
Coming from a family of chocolate lovers, I organized a visit to the Santa Rita community near Archidona in the Ecuadorian Amazon that fell during my family’s Christmas visit.
Santa Rita is a small and relatively new indigenous Kichwa community that has been producing chocolate in small-scale for 30 years. At the time of our visit, Santa Rita was home to 748 community members, all of whom spoke Kichwa.
In 2012, the chocolate plants grew large enough and caught the attention of Pacari. 140 community members participate in the chocolate production. The cacao is completely organic, uses zero chemicals, and the crops are maintained by machete, not machine.
As we sat down to a light meal of pineapple, sugar cane, and guayusa tea, Efrain, the President of the community welcomed us and introduced us to his community, explaining the history and the crops grown in the various chakras, or parcels of land.
In the Santa Rita community, each official is selected by a council and serves one term that lasts two years. This allows everyone in the community an opportunity to serve in office and learn new skills.
Surrounding the long table where we had eaten breakfast are three important huts— one used for making chocolate, another for preparing meals, and the third for creating ceramics. The huts are built over and around large stones. Whereas in western civilization, rocks are used for profit, in Kichwa culture, rocks are living entities with important significance.
With the sweet taste of pineapple still fresh on our tongues, we walked to the food hut where we prepared our lunch with a few women from the community before hiking to the chakras. A giant bowl filled with palmitos (palm hearts) and fern fronds sat alongside a pile of bijao leaves. We each filled our own (non-vegans added fish to theirs), wrapped the food in the leaves, and placed them over the hot fire to steam while we went off to learn about chocolate.
Bolivar, the Vice President of the Santa Rita community, found each of us a pair of rubber boots to combat the thick and squishy mud through which we would travel to reach the cacao chakra. Along the way, Bolivar pointed out important plants and thousands-of-year-old sacred petroglyphs.
Santa Rita grows Arriba Nacional cacao trees, which produce what is known as “fine Ecuadorian aroma.” These plants were revitalized from an ancestral strain of Ecuadorian cacao that has been recovered thanks to the knowledge of indigenous farmers.
As we tramped through the cacao chakra, Bolivar hacked off a large yellow cacao pod with a swift move of his machete, cracking the pod open to show us the beans inside. Coated in a thick pulp, a farmer can expect each pod to contain 20-50 beans.
Because the tropical growing season is continuous, cocoa trees may produce ripe pods at any time. Bolivar explains that their trees begin production at three to four years and can continue growing cocoa for up to 50 years.
We each plucked a ripe bean from the pod, and per Bolivar’s instructions, smelled, then sucked on the raw bean to taste the sweet fruit of the pod, as Bolivar explained the traditional process of creating chocolate.
Once the beans are removed from the pods, they are then fermented for four to six days. After, they dry in the sun for three to four days, depending on how strong the sun is. At this point, the chocolate headed for Pacari leaves for the factory. The chocolate that remains in the community is toasted manually in a clay pot set over a fire. Once toasted, they are ready to be transformed into various forms of edible chocolate.
With chocolate on the mind, we had to wait to make dessert until after we had consumed the lunch we had prepared earlier. Early planning, plus a long term work leave from the woman in charge of arranging tours, led to my realization just hours before our tour that Efrain had not been informed of our vegan diet. I called him before leaving our hotel and let him know, hoping for the best.
While we vegans found ourselves with a bit less lunch than the rest, by no means did we go hungry. As we settled into our seats, plates with patacones (fried plantains—my favorite Latin American snack, ever), yucca, salad, and our steamed leaves were placed before us. With every ingredient on our plate coming from the community chakras, everything was super fresh. Though we missed out on the soup and the mouth watering chocolate mousse for dessert, Efrain assured us that with more advanced notice, the vegans wouldn’t miss out on anything. Besides, we still had chocolate to prepare.
Before getting to our final step of the chocolate-making process, we visited the ceramics hut, where a woman demonstrated how she makes ceramics using find sand from the local river and clay from the region. She kneads the two together and shapes it to make various bowls, pots, mugs, and other creations. After drying, baking, kilning, and painting, a process that takes several days, the ceramics are ready. The women of the community also create beautiful macramé jewelry using seeds.
And Finally, Making Chocolate
Now, about that chocolate.
A small table with a natural stone mortar and pestle sat at one end of the chocolate hut. Bolivar toasted fermented seeds and brought them to the table, whereupon he called us over and set us straight to work.
We peeled the outer layer of the bean, and placed the shelled beans into the mortar and pestle, and began to crush. At this point, the beans became what we know as cacao nibs. But we weren’t making cacao nibs, we were making chocolate, so we took turns grinding the beans into a fine powder. From there, we added panela, an unrefined sugar local sugar, similar to brown sugar.
The last step before we would finally be able to sample our creation, involved returning the sweetened power to the fire and adding guayusa tea, creating a paste. With a few stirs to mix everything together, voilà, chocolate!
Bolivar scooped spoonfuls of our handmade chocolate onto bijao leaves that served as our plates. We dug our fingers into the paste and savored the taste of delicious freshly made chocolate paste.
Efrain, Bolivar, and the women who cooked our meals and showed us their art provided one of the most authentic tour experiences we have experienced. Not typically one for organized tours, the Pacari chocolate tour of the Santa Rita community provided an educational cultural experience into a little-known community off the traditional tourist trail.
The Pacari chocolate tour of the Santa Rita community costs $40 per person and includes:
- Guide to the community in Spanish*
- Activities according to itinerary (see more details here)
- Tasting of chocolates in the city of Quito (which we didn’t have time to do!)
*Note that the tour is only offered in Spanish, so bring along a translator if you don’t understand the language!
Our visit wound up being about so much more than learning where Pacari procures their chocolate—we were welcomed as guests into an indigenous community who grows most of its own food, uses the forest as their pharmacy, and utilizes sustainable farming practices. This was a view inside a world we don’t typically know about or see in person—learning where our food comes from. To book a tour, contact Gabriela Paredes at [email protected].