Historically, cacao – which grows in the world’s tropical regions – has been transformed into chocolate outside its country of origin, often in Europe or North America. Excitingly, the world of chocolate is seeing a new movement manifest itself, with countries of origin transforming their own cacao into chocolate. Companies such as the Grenada Chocolate Company (founded on the island of Grenada by the visionary Mott Green working with local cacao farmers) and Pacari in Ecuador, noted for its award-winning chocolate, are notable trailblazers in this area.
This trend is seeing new chocolate producers set up in the tropics, among them Montecristi in Ecuador, established in 2014 and championing locally-grown cacao from the regon of Manabi. Susana Cardenas a journalist who recently returned to her native Ecuador following a period working in Europe, is one of Manabi’s co-founders. Talking to Susana, it becomes apparent that a connection to cacao runs deep in her own life. Susana’s grew up in the cacao-growing region of Manabi and has vivid childhood memories of her father’s own, small cacao plantation. “I must have been about eight, when he showed me a cacao pod. He said ‘Susana, do you know what this is? From this fruit you get chocolate!’” Her father next showed her how to make chocolate then and there, opening up the cacao pods and taking out the seeds. “ I was so proud to be making chocolate with him. We packed our chocolate into ice cube trays – you have to be creative when you don’t have all the equipment you need. I remember next day going to school and I was so proud to have my own chocolate in my rucksack. I shared it with my friends. I’ve always remembered that moment – that was my first encounter with chocolate! My grandfather had a cacao plantation – where I come from I would say it’s in our DNA – my great-uncle who is 90 years old and he still has his cacao farm. Now I’m back in my country, working with chocolate is like connecting with my family.”
When she returned to Ecuador, before setting up Montecristi, Susana spent a lot of time exploring Ecuador’s cacao-growing regions for a book project, using her journalistic skills to learn about and understand the country’s cacao infrastructure. “I travelled to all the Ecuadorian regions that grow cacao, from the north that borders with Colombia to the Amazon rainforest, just searching and tasting and seeing, meeting people, speaking to farmers. I’ve made amazing friends through cacao – come across extraordinary people who want to grow excellent cacao.” As one might imagine, exploring the more remote regions where cacao grows involved a lot of effort to reach them.” I’ve been to places in order to taste amazing cacao you have to walk, ride a donkey, jump in a truck – travel for 10 hours – I’ve had to do that,” she laughs.
When it comes to cacao growing in Ecuador, there are two main scenarios she explains: either people with small farms (1.5-2 hectares) or major landowners with large plantations. “There’s a lot of middle men in the chain and the farmer always gets the least. “ However, she observes “the farmers are much more savvy nowadays. They are aware of prices in Europe and price their own cacao based on that. They know the power of working together, getting together. There is a tradition of co-operatives.”
When it comes to the cacao being grown in Ecuador “ you find different things. We do have the hybrid variety which is high-yield, resistant to diseases – that’s for a different market from mine. That’s not the sort of cacao I’m interested in. Arriba nacional is the variety we have grown for centuries in Ecuador. We know now that there there are many more varieties of cacao – Arriba is one of them.In terms of flavour profile, Arriba is very floral and also fruity. But based on weather and terroir of course it changes. Cacao is not just about genetics. If you’re on the border with Colombia which is rich, green and exuberant, cacao from there will taste different. In the region where I come from, Manabi, which is drier, you get some caramel and toffee notes as well as fruity ones.”
Susana’s research into Ecuadorian cacao brought her to the attention of a local businesswoman, with whom she has co-founded Montecristi, the aim being to showcase the cacao grown in their local region Manabi. The company is named after an iconic town in the region, historically noted for its fine straw Panama hats. Setting up a chocolate company has proved hard work – “I can’t say it was easy!” she says cheerfully. “But sometimes you have to take risks in order to move forward.”
Working closely with the cacao growers, Montecristi prides itself on the transparency of its chocolate manufacturing process. The cacao variety they are using is Ecuador’s Arriba Nacional, with Montecristi sourcing organic and Fairtrade cacao grown in Manabi by growers Susana knows; “We’re going for a premium product.” A respect for the “extraordinary” amount of work put in by the cacao growers characterises the relationship. “ We’re buying directly from the growers, so our money goes directly to their products. I am just an hour away from the plantation. Our growers are small-scale farmers.. You have to have trust and rapport; you have to get to know them; they have to get to know you. The growers feel proud that someone from the same region is working with them, that the name of Manabi is being put on the map. I feel proud, too, they are my people.” The chocolate itself is made in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. “I almost cried when I saw the first bar coming off the production line. It was very emotional for me,” admits Susana. “The people working in the factory are women from Manabi – they said to me it’s the first time we’ve made chocolate using cacao from Manabi. They were as excited as I was.”
Montecristi have chosen to make couverture chocolate, produced in the dragee form used by patissiers and chefs. “We feel the market for bars is very saturated, so we decided to make chocolate for chefs and pastry chefs. They are very creative people. People are searching for interesting flavours in chocolate.” The chocolate is all made from Arriba, but produced in three different percentages of cacao: - 63%, 70%, 85% - which offers a fascinating exercise in comparative tastings. All three percentages are characterised by a pleasing sparkling cacao acidity to their flavour, with darker, bitter coffee notes apparent in the powerful 85%. Susana is currently talking to UK distributors as she wants to sell Montecristi chocolate here; “The UK market will be very important. We’ve had a positive response to the chocolate.”
Susana herself is both excited and hopeful at what the future will bring, not just for Montecristi but for cacao growers in Latin America. “I have no doubt cacao will empower the next generation. I know people in Ecuador are interested in investing in fine cacao, which will be great for Ecuador, great for the region. Growing fine cacao is risky because the yields are lower, but the flavour is extraordinary. People are investing in fine cacao in Ecuador and that’s great because it will help the whole economy, the whole country. We are doing this because we believe in it. We are passionate about so and so are the many other people working with us. Hopefully it will work.”