By Lance Brashear
The French have played an important role in the history of Ecuador.
It was the French Geodesic Mission to Ecuador that confirmed the exact shape of the Earth in the 1700s. And in 1809, Napolean Bonaparte prompted the first shouts of independence in Quito when he deposed King Fernando VII.
But the French influence has also come in more subtle, yet equally inspiring, ways. In the “Manual de la Cocinera,” (Cook’s Manuel), published in Quito in
the 19th century, there is one simple recipe for chocolate: ice cream, under the title of “Helados Franceses,” or French ice cream.
The book, which was re-published two years ago by the heritage branch of city of Quito, is a testament to the cooking techniques of the time – a mixture of European and local influences. But it seems ironic that a French recipe for chocolate would end up in a local cookbook when the raw material for chocolate – the cacoa bean – is found naturally in Ecuador, not France.
Recent genetic testing has confirmed that cacoa originated from the Amazon basin and spread to Mesoamerica thousands of years ago where it was consumed by the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. The Spanish later discovered it during their conquest of the new world and chocolate soon became an aristocratic drink in European society.
But in the 19th century chocolate would change forever as it was combined with sugar and milk and the cacoa butter was separated from the cocoa solids. With these transformations the source of chocolate was somewhat forgotten even by the great chocolate and pastry chefs. But in recent years chocolate lovers have rediscovered their roots, which extend as far as the coastal plains of Ecuador.
Though Ecuador does not produce an especially large amount of cocoa it does produce the world’s greatest volume of “fine or flavor” beans, or cocoa beans which have distinctive tasting notes. Ecuadorian cacoa has three times been named the best in world by the Salon du Chocolat in Paris.
Ecuadorian cocoa is often referred to as “arriba” cacoa, a name derived from the location of its discovery centuries ago, “up river,” from Guayaquil, along the Guayas River in the area of present day Manabi, Los Rios, and Quevedo. Arriba cocoa, though, is genetically identified as “national” cocoa, one of ten official categories, or clusters, of fine or flavor cacoa that is highly valued throughout the chocolate loving world.
Just as we cannot overemphasize the quality of Ecuadorian cacoa, neither can we deny the importance of the French influence in all things chocolate, even in Ecuador.
In Quito, you will find chefs who do things with chocolate you never thought possible. Cyril Prudhomme is a French pastry chef who last year opened Cyril Boutique, a bakery which offers chocolate delicacies and other pastries and breads.
And Jerome Monteillet, better known as Chez Jerome to Quito diners, though he makes great chocolate pastries, has found ways to use Ecuador’s national cocoa to create a new twist on his filet mignon. “We mix French techniques with flavors here. I like to make a filet mignon…with bacon and on top put a layer of sal prieta – a mix of peanut and salt which is prepared in the province of Manabi. I serve it with a sauce with a cacao base. It is a French style sauce but instead of aromatizing it with cognac, with pepper, I do it with 100 percent cocoa. It is not sweet. It is a French preparation with a national product.”
But aside from their individual efforts of Prudhomme and Monteillet, the French influence in Ecuador has coalesced into a yearly event that has garnered international attention: The Chocolate Salon.
Organized and sponsored in part by the French-Ecuadorian Chamber of Commerce the “Salon de Chocolate” in Quito takes its lead from the French “Salon du Chocolat,” the group that gave Ecuadorian chocolate top honors, an international chocolate show held annually in France.
Each year the “Salon de Chocolate” provides new ideas and tastes based on Ecuadorian nature and French ingenuity.