By Adam H. Graham
While the Egyptians were building pyramids, the Druids were hauling blocks to Stonehenge and the Chinese were mapping out their wall, Ecuadorians were making drinks. But what they were imbibing may well have had a bigger impact on the world than those other ancient wonders combined.
Chocolate was once thought to have originated with Mesoamerican Mayans around 1,900 B.C. But in 2011, archaeologists discovered evidence that it may have come from Ecuador. They found traces of theobromine — a compound found in cacao beans, the raw material for chocolate — on 5,300-year-old pots in a southern province of the country. Around the same time, an heirloom variety of cacao, called Nacional, was found growing wild about 300 miles south, in northern Peru. The beans, prized for their pure flavor, dominated Ecuador’s chocolate market before disease struck in 1916, eliminating 95% of the species.
Until recently, Ecuadorean cacao growers had been cultivating low-grade cacao beans and selling them to foreign chocolate makers to process. But, increasingly, they’re planting Nacional beans. The past few years have seen the emergence of local producers like Pacari; the Kallari Association, a cooperative of 850 family-run plantations; and República del Cacao, a company founded in 2009 and bought by French chocolate giant Valrhona three years later.
I visited Ecuador to experience chocolate at its ancient source, visiting 200-year-old cacao towns, steamy plantations and modern factories. Of the country’s five major cacao producing regions, I chose Los Ríos province, a scenic three-hour drive west from Quito. Hersheypark it is not (yet): This was just basic agritourism with a guide, Luis Marin, from ECTravel, the only outfitter that offers tours of Pacari.
Pacari’s biodynamic, USDA-certified organic, 100% Ecuador-sourced chocolate has been an industry game-changer. The company, which was founded in 2002, beat out France, Italy and the U.S. to sweep the London Chocolate Awards in 2012, a moment similar to the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 (aka, the Judgment of Paris), a blind-tasting competition in which California wines publicly won out over French ones. Pacari makes a wide variety of chocolate bars without importing milk, sugars or other ingredients from abroad. It specializes in dark bars studded with fruits such as figs, wild Andean blueberries and uvilla (golden berries); single-origin chocolates; and unusual flavors like maca root and Peruvian salt.
The descent from Quito’s sprawling, two-mile-high capital was spectacular. The Avenue of Volcanoes, a 200-mile road studded with volcanoes, is reason alone to visit. We leveled out in the lowlands. Within 20 minutes, the temperature rose from 55 degrees to 90; the roads swelled again with people. Roadside vendors hawking sugar cane and pineapple vied for driver’s dollars. We saw mechanics leaning against cement-block walls. Young men on motorbikes hauled burlap bags of cacao.
Mr. Marin pulled over to buy a small brown bag of pan de yuca, golden and crispy outside with a hot doughy center. I whipped out a bar of Pacari’s award-winning dark chocolate that I had packed for the ride. It had intense floral notes and a smooth macadamia-nut finish. I’d never tasted anything like it. “The first time I tried Pacari, I hated it,” Mr. Marin said, finishing his square. “It was bitter and sour and I thought it must have gone bad in the heat.”
Mr. Marin was raised on milk chocolate from Europe. He had no taste for dark varieties, much less single-origin chocolate. But he, like many others, has begun to experience the pride of going local.
My tour included a brief meeting with Pacari’s CEO and founder, Santiago Peralta, who was leading a biodynamic workshop in Los Ríos. We met, oddly, at a Chinese restaurant in Quevedo, the province’s biggest city. “It’s exciting to see fifth-generation farmers taste their cacao for the first time,” he said. “These guys work so hard and have been ignored for decades while rich European countries like Switzerland get all the glory.”
Mr. Marin and I made for the town of El Empalme, founded in the 19th century when Ecuador was the world’s top exporter of cacao. Locals say the area was once so wealthy that all of its children were sent to French boarding schools. Today the roads are lined with women and children hawking low-quality cacao beans. But the sun-faded roasting factories and cacao farms have begun to hum again.
We toured an organic cacao plantation run by one of Mr. Peralta’s farmers. We moved through soggy woods to reach the cacao tree, which bore football-shape pods ranging in color from golden yellow to red to green. The farmer pulled a yellow pod from a tree and cracked it open with a machete, revealing a cluster of beans held together by a fragrant, pulpy flesh. I ate the pulp, which was delicious, and bit into the bean to reveal a deep, inky purple. Roasted Nacional beans are said to have over 400 distinct flavors, but the fresh beans are just as complex.
My next stop, two hours away, was a world apart from the rugged plantations. Ecuador’s newest eco-resort, Mashpi Lodge, is a modernist glass box built on 3,000 acres of cloud forest in the Tumbez-Chocó-Magdalena region. Visitors usually come for activities like bike ziplines and hummingbird lectures. I was more interested in the chocolate flights and red tuna with a cacao crust.
The lodge’s “eco” claim is belied by the fact that it runs on a diesel generator (the local government plans to convert to hydropower in 2014). But where else can you feast on cacao and behold rare birds at the same time? Over a two-night stay, I spotted more than 45 avian species, including velvet purple coronets and green-crowned woodnymphs—not to mention a very cuddly pair of ocelot kittens.
I drove back up to Quito to visit Pacari’s small factory in the scruffy, outlying Guajalo neighborhood, which offered great views of misty mountains. Inside, where the air was rich with the smell of fermenting beans, I witnessed the entire chocolate-making process. Fermented beans are roasted, puréed and mixed with cocoa butter and sugar, and then poured into molds to cool. The experience is, to be honest, dull—but the results are definitely not. Even after roasting, the cacao beans taste like perfumed nuts.
It’s a flavor you won’t forget, a wonder of the modern world.