El Fantasma was making good time, dropping down from Ecuador’s northern border with Colombia, somewhere south of San Lorenzo. Edie and I were headed back by Atacames to have some ostione ceviche for lunch.
We had been seeing some type of small objects carefully lined up along the road shoulder. They looked like peanuts still in the shell. If I had left my lane to pull over, I’d have been rolling over them. Some were a lighter tan, others, a reddish brown color. Occasionally, I would see a person sitting under a bush somewhere nearby, like they were on guard duty. Yes, they were watching the world slide by with one eye while the other maintained a piercing vigilance over those mysterious items.
As we drove on, we spotted thousands of the unidentified objects. They were spread out on the packed dirt apron in front of a couple of buildings. The area formed a small compound. The buildings surrounding the compound sported an odd colored green paint, probably left over from some industrial project of the ’50’s. Everything felt right…the smell of adventure was in the air. I got into the brakes. About a minute and a half later, I was shaking hands with Jesus Bolivar in front of his operation. He was a big man with a matching smile and was proud of what he had going on there! I liked him very much right away.
Cacao beans! That’s what they were, fresh out of their pods and drying under the hot Ecuadorian sun. Jesus uses a rake with wooden tines to spread the beans out for drying. Once they are partially dry, he gathers them into large drying bins where air, super-heated from gas burners, completes this part of the process. Most of the beans are bagged for sale at a collection point a few clicks down the road. Some, Jesus roasts and then processes with his blue crusher to extract some cacao liquor. This bitter liquid is the precursor to exquisite chocolate candy.
But, there was that hidden element, that little extra piece I was about to get out of my “slice of life” experience…Jesus was also a pepper farmer! Well, he and I had been on the same sheet of music from the start in our communications. Now, I find that he not only grows pepper, but he likes to use a lot of it for seasoning, just like us.
On a dirty black tarpaulin lay what looked to me like green, red and black gold. I was thrilled to be looking at freshly harvested Ecuadorian pepper pods. I didn’t even ask Jesus if he was sharing, I just jammed a couple of sweet fresh red pepper berries in my mouth and started chewing. Unbelievably bright fruity tones were on the front of my palate as the bite of the spicy pepper came to rest over the back of my tongue. I guess my eyes crossed because he kind of giggled, like a schoolgirl, which made me laugh out loud because he was such a big guy! Well, I tried the green ones too but he motioned me over to another spot before I was into the black ones.
He had a big white sack full of dried black peppercorns. I tasted one; very nice, well rounded, black pepper flavor. There was a faint note of cherries. Seems he sells these down the road at another collective; you sell what you can to make ends meet in rural Ecuador. He knew I liked his place and his produce. I tried to get him to take me to the pepper plants but he kept saying they were high on the mountain. There were some hills near by, maybe that’s what he meant. I don’t know where the plants were actually growing. He tells me to fill my pockets full of peppercorns so I readily oblige him. He didn’t seem to have any extra bags. With that, there was more hand shaking(yeah, very cool vibe and camaraderie)and then El Fantasma was back on the road, coming up through the gears as I guided him between the lines.
If you get up that way, poking around in northern Ecuador, stop by and meet Jesus, see his place. He’s a great guy with a cool operation. Oh! Be careful! Don’t forget to dig all those peppercorns out of your pockets before you do the laundry. Put them straight into the grinder. Every time you grind some fresh on your favorite food, that sweet hot pepper flavor will remind you of one of the biggest smiles in Ecuador.
And, don’t forget to tell Jesus it was Brian and Edie who sent you!