Cuenca sisters make chocolates to suit local tastes but aim for international recognition
By Stephen Vargha
Ecuador has the oldest evidence of chocolate ever being used. And the country – especially Cuenca – has some of the youngest people making quality chocolates.
Michael Blake, an archaeologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and fellow archaeologist Francisco Valdez of the French Research Institute for Development in Marseille, France, have evidence that suggests the inhabitants of Santa Ana-La Florida used cocoa routinely between about 2,100 and 5,300 years ago.
According to pottery from carbon dated layers at the site in the Palanda Canton, in Zamora-Chinchipe province, the oldest recorded use of cocoa is in Ecuador. The Amazonian province, Zamora-Chinchipe, is in the southeast corner of Ecuador. The archaeological team reported their findings three years ago in the monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Now, three young sisters are producing high-quality chocolate in Cuenca. In an industrial part of the city, off of Av. González Suárez and Av. de las Américas, the sisters are contributing to the world class chocolate that Ecuador is producing.
“We named the company, Viferchi, said 23-year-old Ximenia Alvarez. “It is a combination of our names: Viviana (VI), Fernanda (FER), and ‘Chiqui’ (CHI). My sisters affectionately call me, Chiqui.”
Chiqui is a nickname for someone you care about. It comes from the word chico or small. It translates to “your little one.” Ximenia is not the youngest as Viviana is 17 years old. Her older sister, Fernanda, is 26 years old.
The three sisters founded the company three years ago. Prior to that, they were producing artisanal chocolates for companies such as Toyota, TRYP by Wyndham Cuenca Zahir, and Serafina. The chocolates were made only on demand.
Using molds produced at their father’s company plant, Juan Alvarez Cía Ltda., the sisters can produce unique chocolates for their clients. The molds are graphically designed before produced. A special “Z” was produced on the computer for Zahir.
“This is a family business,” said Fernanda. “We have the equipment and talent to make the chocolate molds to your liking.”
No amount is too much. Recently, Viferchi produced 23,000 pieces of artisanal chocolate for Cooperativa Policía Nacional. It is the second largest coop in the country. Cooperativa Juventud Ecuatoriana Progresista (JEP) is the largest.
“In September 2021, we entered a competition in Quito to produce chocolate for the cooperativa,” said Fernanda. “They tasted our chocolates and chose us in October to produce their Christmas chocolates.”
Besides unique chocolates, Viferchi produces visually appealing boxes for their chocolates. “We have a printer that has 2 million colors,” said Fernanda. “With this many choices, we can make personal boxes for chocolates.”
It can be as little as one box or as many as a thousand. Viferchi will produce whatever one needs. “We can make personal chocolates for a baby shower or weddings.” said Fernanda.
And they have two graphic designers dedicated to producing what one wants. One person designs the boxes and the other designs the molds.
One American expat in Cuenca just ordered a box with a pink dragon for her granddaughter in the United States. The specially designed pink dragon and the Viferchi chocolates will be delivered to the U.S. this month as a gift.
Viferchi opened three months prior to the Covid pandemic and lockdown. “At the beginning, sales were really good, but we did not have enough time to market the chocolates,” said Fernanda. “Because we were a very young company, we closed for a year.”
The sisters only produce chocolate at the 55 percent rate. The percentage of cocoa you see on a label is the measurement of the chocolate’s weight that comes from actual cacao beans (including cocoa liquor and cocoa butter). The remaining percentage consist of other ingredients such as sugar, predominantly. But the rest may also include very small percentages of vanilla and/or flavorings.
“We make sweet chocolate because people in Ecuador do not like a dark chocolate,” said Fernanda. “Manicho (mass produced Ecuadorian milk chocolate filled with peanuts) is very popular here because it is milk chocolate.”
Prior to selling their chocolate, the sisters had a thorough testing of their chocolates. “We had a taste test in 2018 with 200 people in Cuenca,” said Fernanda. “They were given ten types of chocolates and were asked to rank them from best to least favorite.”
The chocolates had varying amounts cacao beans, from 45 percent to 90 percent. “They told us that 45 percent was too sweet, and that 80 percent was too dark for them,” said Fernanda.
Based on that, the sisters decided that 55 percent was the sweet spot. “We think Americans will like the chocolate because it will be sweet as they like it,” said Fernanda.
Their cacao beans come from Manabí province. The cacao beans are processed in Guayaquil. After being refined, the chocolate is trucked to Cuenca where the three sisters do the final part of getting it to market. They say it is the most important part of producing chocolate.
Just as important is the cacao bean. Viferchi only uses Cacao Arriba Fino de Aroma. The denomination is an International Cocoa Organisation classification, which describes an especially exquisite aroma and flavor. Between 6 and 7 percent of the world’s cocoa is classified as Cacao Arriba Fino De Aroma, and is predominantly grown in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Ecuador dominates with over half the market for the exceptional Cacao Arriba Fino de Aroma bean.
“It is the best cacao bean,” said Fernanda. “We do not use GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) cacao. It is a cheaper quality that is used for large commercial operations. We know that many brands use GMO cacao beans, but we will never use it.”
Fernanda, Ximenia, and Viviana have flavored chocolate, too. Their Menta (Mint) chocolate is very popular. Needless to say, Maracuyá (Passion Fruit) is favored by many.
Other flavorings were not successful and never marketed. “We wanted to make chocolate with whiskey. When our tasters tried it, they thought it was rum because it was sweet,” said Fernanda. “Now, we have a thousand boxes we will have to get rid of,” Fernanda said with a laugh.
Only the best flavored chocolates will make it to market. “If you try a flavor, you do not like, you are not going to try our other chocolates,” said Fernanda. “That is why we did not produce the chocolate with whiskey.”
Though Ecuadorian chocolates have received global awards and recognition for fine quality over recent years, getting the word out has been difficult. “Ecuador has a lot of great things including chocolate, bananas, and coffee,” said Fernanda. “But marketing is difficult against the corporate giants such as Nestlé.”
Word about Viferchi chocolate has gotten out in Ecuador. It can be found at all of the Coral stores in Cuenca as well as at The Winery, on Av. Fray Vicente Solano. It can even be found at a gift shop at Cuenca’s airport.
Fernanda wants everyone to know the sisters’ chocolate will last a long time. “Chocolate does not expire,” said Fernanda. “We have chocolate from 2019 to see how it holds up, and it is all very good!”
That is good news for the next time you fly back to the United States and Canada with Viferchi chocolates.
Viferchi, Paseo de Milchichig s/n y Av. Gonzalez Suárez. Cuenca, (07) 405 80 33, email@example.com, https://www.facebook.com/Viferchi
Photos by Stephen Vargha