One of the most incredible experiences in my lifetime. It all started thanks to our great friend (who also happens to be our chocolate importer) letting us know about a new brand in the industry. Not really knowing the entire story, but trusting my dear friend, we decided to jump in and order a few cases of South American single origin chocolate. Upon receiving the chocolate and making a few different pieces with it, we soon realized that we had something special. Not long after that, Eric reached out to me about a possible trip to the actual farm in Ecuador where the cacao is grown. I initially didn't think much of it until I received the invitation via email. It didn't hit me at first, but after I spent some time looking over the information, I realized what a truly life changing experience this could be. I was over the moon excited. It was a tremendous honor to be selected to take part in a such a special trip along side some of the best chocolatiers and pastry chefs from around the USA. Also on the trip were sales reps, marketing staff, and both retail and professional CEO's of Republica del Cacao. Republica del Cacao is a family owned Ecuadorian chocolate company which sources, engineers, and manufactures cacao from family owned and operated plantations in Ecuador, Peru, and The Dominican Republic. Their main focus is creating a sustainable cacao operation where every ingredient is traceable, where the farmers are paid fairly, and the professional and retail customers can get top quality chocolate at affordable prices.
The trip was jam packed with activities once we arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador and is in the southern part of the country. It is mostly hot and humid there, ideal for growing cacao. Cacao grows within 20 degrees north and south of the equator. We went out to dinner the first night with a couple of chocolatiers and pastry chefs who flew in early as well as the CEO of the chocolate company and his team. What an incredible spread of fresh seafood and traditional Ecuadorian fare. We returned to the hotel and met up with the rest of the chefs and chocolatiers.
The next morning we boarded a bus and traveled about 2 hours outside of Guayaquil to a small town called Vinces which is in the Los Rios Province of Ecuador. We all knew instantly that we would be embarking on an amazing adventure. We arrived at a family owned and operated cacao plantation called Rancho Grande which has been in the same family for over 200 years. This farm is run by Raul Caicedo along with his wife Maria and daughter Gissela. As we began walking into the jungle, I couldn't wait to see an actual cacao pod! I remember seeing, touching, smelling the first cacao pod I laid eyes on. Just incredible. While walking through the plantation, we were able to see cacao growing in all different stages from flower, to pod, to raw bean, to dried bean, to untempered chocolate. Mr. Salciedo gave us a personal tour through the farm which also had plenty of banana trees. He picked a pod that was ready (he knew just after looking and shaking it a bit). The inside of the cacao pod was beyond interesting as well as being able to taste the raw bean! Although we were told to spit it out after we bit it in half as the bean would not digest well without fermentation. After we walked through the entire farm, we were treated to homemade hot chocolate, cakes, and one of my top food experiences in my life, scratch made empanadas. Light fluffy pastry surrounded the most complex and flavorful beef filling I have ever tasted. I was honored to have had that experience as I know how special that recipe was to the Salciedo's.
Through an intermediate company TransMar, these cacao beans are collected and brought to Republica del Cacao's collection center just outside of Vinces. Here the beans are further processed through organic methods and made ready to send to Republica's engineering and manufacturing center in Quito.
After spending a couple of days in and around Guayaquil, our group next flew to Quito in the Northern part of the country. Quito is entirely different than Guayaquil. It is almost 3,000 feet above sea level and is very mountainous. As soon as we flew in, we ventured 3 hours to higher elevation in Cayambe. In the small town of Turucucho at the foothills of the majestic Cayambe mountain range is a small village of indigenous people, mostly dairy farmers. We were at the farm at around 5:30 in the morning which is when they start to milk the cows. These cows are free roaming, grass eating, healthy cows which produce the finest milk. This milk is then brought mostly by horseback to the dairy collection center where it is tested for bovine mastitis as well as ph balance. This is the milk that is directly used in the 31% Ecuadorian white chocolate. Once again, Republica del Cacao is investing money into agriculture and education for the indigenous people as well as offering them direct trade. Direct trade insures good wages and greater relationships instead of fair trade which is rather ambiguous in its assertions. What's really fair and who is it fair for? We brought samples of the finished white chocolate to the farmers who at first were hesitant as they were not familiar with this type of finished chocolate. Once they tried it, they began to smile and stuff their pockets full of the white chocolate which comes from their cows milk!