At the Cacao Collection centers in Quevedo

beans drying at collection center

On the 3rd day, we visited several collection centers around Quevedo.  These centers are where farmers in the area drop off their beans and collect their money.  Usually the beans are already fermented and dried, but if the farmer doesn’t have the equipment or wants money quickly, he can drop off the fresh baba.  These collection centers are very convenient for the farmers but leave a lot to be desired in terms of promoting quality beans.

In two of the three collection centers the beans were dried using powerful blowers instead of natural sunlight.   Beans are “blow dried” to hasten the drying process so that it takes 10 hours rather than 4 days.  I asked Steve Devries his opinion regarding this method, and he is convinced that it kills a lot of flavors that come out of drying the beans naturally.

We sampled some beans at random and found that many of them were under fermented as well.  The beans we split open at Samuel’s farm were brown with nice even cracks, while these were mostly purple.  Under fermented beans means the chocolate will taste astringent and will ultimately have to be masked with lots of sugar or vanilla in order for it to be palatable.

Steve pointed out that bean quality is compromised when you mix all the beans from different farms together, because they will have to be roasted to the most common denominator.   The fact that some farmers bring in perfectly fermented beans won’t matter because others might not care as much about the quality of their beans.   This problem is worsened by the fact that collection centers accept both Arriba beans and CCN-51.  We noticed that very little is done to prevent them from mixing once they got past the door.  So, even if your bar of chocolate claims to use only Arriba beans, chances are it’s not.

Probably the biggest issue threatening quality is cleanliness.   I saw animal feces on the floors of the dryers at one (a good argument agains raw chocolate) and at another, there were chickens nesting in an unused fermentation bin.  At one point we saw workers scrambling to clean up an overflowing toilet that threatened to leak on coffee beans  which were laying out on the floor to dry!  Minutes later we watched in amazement as trucks drove over the those coffee beans.   This is just one example of why it’s very important to know where you food comes from!

I felt that the visit to these centers made one thing very clear:  there is really no better way to insure quality and consistency than by working directly with a farmer.


Samuel’s Cacao Farm, Quevedo, Ecuador

On the road to Samuels Farm.

On day 2 of our trip, we had an early breakfast and then caught the bus to Quevedo, a city in the Los Rios region of Ecuador, and one of the top cocoa bean exporting centers in the country.

Samuel in the plantion.

After a long but picturesque 6 hour drive narrated by our excellent guide, Pablo, we arrived at Samuel von Rutte’s farm.  Samuel is a swiss immigrant and former Nestle employee who moved to Ecuador years ago to become a cocoa farmer.    He now has thousands of trees and supplies many local and international chocolate companies with premium quality beans.  He also supplied us with a premium quality meal of  homemade empanadas and chocolate mousse, which we hungrily gobbled up before  taking a walk around the plantation.  Samuel’s trees are purely Arriba Nacional, a type of  forestaro cacao that is indigenous to Ecuador and considered to be a fine flavor bean.   The success of the cocoa industry in Ecuador is linked to the  Arriba cacao because it is said to have a distinctive flavor profile(floral) that can’t be found in the CCN-51, the other and perhaps more common type of bean available in the country.   The demand for Arriba cacao is so high now that  farmers are encouraged to plant them over the CCN-51 even though the latter are easier to grow.   Whether or not the Arriba can still be found in its pure form is another story and I’ll go into that later.

The men on the drying pad.

After our walk we saw Samuel’s fermentation and drying set up.  Samuel has a special technique to ferment the beans.  Instead of dumping all the baba (raw beans with mucilage) into fermentation bins and rotating them over the course of 4 or 5 days, he does something called dry fermentation.  Once the beans are removed from the pod, he spreads them out to dry for several hours.  He then piles them up overnight to allow them to ferment for 2-3 days.  In wet fermentation, it takes days for the enzymes to permeate the husks.  Using Samuel’s technique, the moisture is removed from drying the beans first, which allows the fermentation to start more quickly.    By doing this, the bad-tasting acids that normally stay trapped in the wet process, are eliminated straight away and the chocolate tastes less bitter and astringent.

After our tour, Samuel let us try some of his 100% chocolate and it was amazingly sweet, smooth, and lacked any bitterness at all.  We all bought lots of bars to take home with us.


Dry fermentation in progress.

A perfectly fermented bean.



Opening the cacao pod.



Sapecho, a cacao town in the Alto Beni region of Bolivia.

For several years Kerstin’s Chocolates has been working with Edmonton-based charity Change for Children that helps fund projects around the world to improve the lives of children. I became interested in them because of the work they do in countries and communities where cacao is grown. Over the years, we’ve donated money and chocolate to support their projects in South American and African countries. I’ve always wanted to get a first hand look at the work they do and when we had the chance to visit Bolivia, I contacted the president of the organization, Lorraine Swift, to see if she could arrange for us to visit. Lorraine connected us with the folks from Fundacion Renance, a grass-roots organization which helps people in several different regions in Bolivia. They work with women, helping them understand their legal rights and teaching them ways to improve nutrition and farming practices. We met Oscar, the founder, and Odalis, one of his colleagues, the day after we arrived in La Paz and made plans to visit the region of Alto Beni later in the week.

There are only two ways to get to the Alto Beni, flying or driving. Deciding against risking the drive down the infamous “death road”, we took instead a small propeller plane from La Paz to Rurrenabaque in the Amazon jungle (La Paz is one of highest cities in the world at an elevation of 3900m above sea level, and “Rurre” is only 200m above sea level, so it is quite a drop). From there we hired a cab to the town of Sapecho in the Alto Beni region, which is about another 6 hours on very bad roads from Rurre. During our hot, bumpy and dusty drive, we had a chance to talk to Odalis at length about the region, its people and the problems that people are having there.

The Alto Beni is Bolivia’s bread basket, the place where most of the country’s fruit grows, including its cacao. The region has seen a lot of changes in the last 40 years. Originally inhabited by tribes such as the Moseten Indians, many migrants arrived in Alto Beni in the 60’s and 70’s from the Altiplano or the highlands of Bolivia after competition for land and resources began to push them out. The new farmers and the indigenous people were given 40 hectares of land each to farm, which they used to plant crops such as mandarins, cacao and bananas. Many farmers concentrated on one or two of these cash crops. They get relatively low prices for all of these crops, and cacao is much harder to grow and process than either bananas or mandarins.

Oscar (who is from Sapecho) noticed a need to educate the farmers on how to grow a bigger variety of crops so they can better feed their families and not become dependent on one crop should it fail one year. Many farmers would grow veggies and fruits to sell at the market or ship up to La Paz, but they did not consume them themselves. Instead they ate processed foods, fried meats and drank sweet sodas. One of the roles of Fundacion Renace is to provide farmers with vegetable seeds so they can grow crops for their own consumption and improve their families nutrition.

Odalis and Oscar now hold regular workshops to teach women how to make nutritious foods using local ingredients. They teach them how to make juices, fruit breads, jams, yogurts, even sausages and chocolate. When we were there, they were teaching women how to cook with pumpkin, a new food for them. Their goal in the next few years is to establish a breakfast program in the far reaches of Alto Beni where families are the poorest and where kids walk long distances to get to school. They want to hire some of the local women which they’ve taught to prepare nutritious foods, to cook a healthy breakfast for the kids. It struck me that Oscar might be the Jamie Oliver of Bolivia!

In her excellent English, Odalis told me about her plans to help the female cacao growers of the Alto Beni. She wants to create a project where women process their own cocoa beans into cocoa liquor and then invent cacao-containing products to sell in local and foreign markets. She is passionate about improving the livelihood of local women by increasing the value of their cocoa beans. Cyrus and I promised to help her find a good cacao roasting machine and cacao grinder to help her accomplish this goal. She already got word from Change for Children that they will fund the purchase of a grinder. We also discussed the possibility that I would eventually purchase some of this cacao paste to make products of my own. Its extremely exciting to finally realize my dream of helping a cocoa growing community gain independence through their cocoa products. It’s better still to find someone equally passionate as Odalis is to share that dream with me.

A voyage across Cuba to find cacao.

For those of you who have been following my adventures around the world for the last 8 months, you know that I have been to Europe, Africa, Asia and Mexico in search of chocolate knowledge. Despite going to all of these places, I feel like  my holy grail has still eluded me. I had tasted the best chocolate in the world, the most expensive chocolate in the world, the most ancient chocolate in the world and yet I had not found what I was looking for. Until I came to Cuba, that is. My answer has arrived, but not in learning what chocolate is, but rather what it isn’t.


Continue reading

Visiting Don Isidro’s Cacao Farm in Huehuetan, Chiapas


A young boy climbs a cacao tree to pick a ripe pod for us!


On Saturday we met a cacao farmer down here in Soconusco, Chiapas, named Don Isidro.  He took us to meet his family and have dinner with them.  The day started by meeting him at a highway gas station.  Since we were late, he had been waiting at least an hour in the stifling heat. He was pretty  cool about it though, and invited us to come to his house and farm where he grew cacao.  First we went fishing! Don Isidro wanted to feed us fresh fish, so he took us to a talapia farm where a teenage boy dragged nets across a pond to scoop out fish.  Once we had the fish(it took over an hour to find the boy and to get the right sized fish), we drove to his farm which was located at the very end of a dirt road that led through cacao and mango trees.   Don Isidro grows both of those as well as coffee, which he told us, is his most profitable crop.

He showed us his cacao, which wasn’t ready to harvest yet.  The peak harvest season in Chiapas is June where the pods turn bright yellow and are ready to be cut from the tree.   The pods we saw were still green, although when we tasted them fresh, they were already sweet and delicious.

He then invited us into his house to meet his wife, Herminia and his six children.  It was hard to keep track of all the kids because four of them are girls and seemingly close in age.  Darius made an interesting observation.  He said that if you have 6 kids back home, they make a TV show about it, but here it’s quite normal.  I explained that farmers generally have more kids so they can help around the farm.

After a few glasses of lemonade, Don Isidro showed us where he dried the cacao.  We walked up several flights of stairs to the top floor with the best view.  He preferred to dry the beans there, away from the chickens and the dogs (for obvious reasons), but it was also a pain to bring the beans downstairs every time it rained.  He told us that his wife and daughters did most of the drying work and they also sorted through the beans picking out the bad ones.  He still had some beans from the previous harvest in September and he showed us the difference between well fermented and poorly fermented beans.  The well fermented ones had cracks in them and there was a difference in colour, too, although Cyrus and I couldn’t quite understand what that difference was.  My Spanish is pretty much non existent and Cyrus struggles with the technical terms.

It was getting quite dark now and the kids were bored and hungry.  Luckily dinner was ready.   Herminia cooked us a wonderful fish dinner.  One for each of us!  They declined to join us for dinner because they had friends visiting later and wanted to eat with them.  I felt bad eating my whole fish in front of the family, but I was starving and the fish was delicious and that overrode all sense of propriety.

Once we finished eating, we left fairly quickly.  Everyone was exhausted from the day, including the family who had made such pains to host us.  We were very grateful to Don Isidro and his wife, for being so generous with us and our kids.


One night in Paris…

On route to visit my hometown in Germany, we stayed one night in Paris to catch up on some sleep and to try to overcome our jet lag. Our hotel was situated near the Gar de L’Est where we would catch our train to Mannheim the following day. We decided to do some sight seeing in the neighborhood and came upon a chocolate museum. We paid our 8 euros to get in plus a couple more for some hot chocolate that we received upon finishing the tour. The museum was very interesting and contained many artifacts such as ancient Mayan drinking vessels and silver hot chocolate pots from the 17th century. There were antique winnowing and conching machines on display and a chocolatier demonstrated proper tempering techniques.  The museum was excellent but I was severely fatigued and couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.  We finished our tour early and went to the lobby for our hot chocolate.

One word of warning: do not give your child hot chocolate when she is over tired and jet lagged because something bad will happen! We had the not so brilliant idea of letting our kids sit on a bench next to another guest while we looked over some of the displays that we missed. Just as we began to walk away, we heard a splash and to our horror, our daughter Ilona had spilled her entire drink on the man sitting beside her including his briefcase! The man calmly stood up and said goodbye to the person he was speaking to on the phone saying “I have to go, a girl just doused me with hot chocolate”.   Cyrus and I began frantically dabbing at him with paper towels and apologizing profusely. To make matters worse he told us that the suit he was wearing was brand new. We offered to pay for dry-cleaning. He explained that it needed to be pressed too. I gave him 50 euros and we got out of there as quickly as we could. It wasn’t funny until much later when we realized that our 5 year old had just had the most expensive hot chocolate in the world!

Kick Starting some great chocolate.

We are backing a project on KickStarter that we really like called “A Edible History of Chocolate“. They are almost there but they need more people in the next 4 days to jump in. If you are interested in tasting some cutting edge chocolate from Mexico by way of Hawaii, sign up!

Here is a little video from the folks at Madre Chocolate:

and the current status:

Chocolate and Child Labor

stop child labour
Image by Anduze traveller via Flickr

here has been some recent activity relating to the problem of child labor on cacao plantations, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of it.

Here is a story about the cocoa industries’ goals:

And here is a piece about how Hershey is behind other companies on verifying the labor practices of their suppliers:

There is progress, but not nearly enough for my tastes. If you find out any more info about these issues, please let us know. We want to keep track of the industry’s progress in dealing with child labor!

Enhanced by Zemanta