chocolate

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Shock Chocolate Bar

Shock Chocolate Bar-As good as it sounds?

Just came across this the other day in the super market. I wonder if it’s as good as it sounds…would anyone like a Shock?

Finally, professionally organized tours to learn about chocolate and cacao in Ecuador are up and running. We have two itineraries, one more intense than the other. Come during Ecuador’s peak cacao harvesting season in April and May and you will see all the amazing activities that go into making chocolate. Visit Ecuatoriana de Chocolate factory in Quito, the Kallara cooperative, and other amazing sites.

We now have 3 tours scheduled this year to take you to Ecuador´s chocolate country. In addition, we have a fourth tour with Ecole Chocolat in April, which is the professional chocolate tour in Ecuador led by me and Steve Devries.

Our current Ecuadorian Chocolate Tours are scheduled for Saturday, April 6 to 13, and Saturday, May 4 to Saturday May 11. Finally, we have an eleven day, intensive tour to see cacao related activities in two areas of Ecuador, including the remote Esmeraldas province, from July  6 to July 17th.

For more information and pre-registration for these tours in Ecuador’s chocolate country, please click here.

While Valentine’s Day has become one of if not the largest chocolate consumption holiday in North America, and a day of flowers and romance, it also merits some thought about those making your chocolate. Valentine’s Day was originally a day to celebrate martyrs more than 15 centuries ago. With continuing industry issues surrounding child labor and slavery in the industry, especially in West Africa, and the spotlight on these issues through films such as The Dark Side of Chocolate, unfortunately there is still a great deal of suffering associated with chocolate production.

Fortunately, here in Ecuador there is no evidence of child labor or slavery being used in cacao production, though there are many, many families who make a subsistence living, if only that, by growing and harvesting cacao beans, banans, rice, and other tropical crops. Small farmers with small plots of land, usually five hectares or less, make up the bulk of Ecuador’s cacao production. If you are buying single origin Ecuadorian chocolate, you can be comfortable in the knowledge that it was not produced under duress.

If you are buying an everyday chocolate or a blend, it was probably made with beans from the West African countries of the Ivory Coast or Ghana. You may be buying a product whose ingredients were produced in less than ideal conditions. While Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and other certifications may add a “feel-good” stamp for the consumer, the issues are much more complex than advertised. A good source to read more about Fair Trade labeling is on thechocolatelife.com here. In Ecuador we are now producing gourmet, fine chocolates for export, and they will be available in the US in the coming months. The chocolate is made from pure Nacional beans and we know it’s produced under excellent conditions, as we have visited the farm where the beans are growing. Stay tuned, and make sure your Valentine’s Chocolate is made under conditions you’d be happy working under!

Chocolate continues to head into uncharted territory in 2011, both in flavor combinations and in sales numbers. We’re seeing a continuation of trends already visible in many other food areas-especially the application of nutritional supplements or nutraceuticals to foods in the form of “functional chocolates,” and the addition of exotic spices and flavors like blood orange, hibiscus, and olive oils. Driven by consumers’ increasing demand for convenience, some semblance of nutrition (or a weak excuse to indulge in something not usually considered healthy but now not only somewhat healthy but “enhanced”), and a growing demand from niche markets, chocolates that are vegan, non-dairy, kosher, or with other specific characteristics are becoming increasingly common.

I’m a strong advocate of eating healthy, but I’m not a firm believer in getting your nutrients through highly processed and concentrated and intensely purified powder or liquid. Too little is known (and unknown) about meeting your nutritional needs through concentrated substances and vitamins, so I say eat more fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, healthy fish and poultry, and high cocoa percentage chocolates in reasonable quantities. You’ll get all around better nourishment in more ways than one by eating right and preparing your own food as much as possible, and still be able to indulge in the real thing-pure chocolate or a rich ganache made with cream and butter, not some synthetic or processed filler.

Traditional favorites are also seeking a new twist to get in on the chocolate craze; case in point-chocolate covered Jelly Bellys. While I’m not confident this is a winning combination, at least they are sticking to tried-and-true flavor combinations such as cherry, coconut, raspberry, orange, and strawberry.

And while consumers are increasingly interested in origin and authenticity, it doesn’t seem to be on the radar of the food writers and sites I have surveyed in putting this together. It’s too difficult for any of the big manufacturers and well-known names that set many of the trends to source single origin cacao. It’s also cost-prohibitive and logistically complicated to ensure a steady supply of beans from a single origin for the mass markets they serve.

These trends will come and go, as they all do. I’m surprised I haven’t seen some new molecular gastronomy technique applied to chocolates; perhaps using the calcium chloride spherication technique to encapsulate some new funky flavor-and if it the spheres can be made sturdy enough, then panning them in chocolate. Personally, I prefer the classic flavors such as caramel, coffee, or nuts combined with or used in a ganache, properly subdued, and combined with good chocolate. If you are looking for a more healthy way to consume chocolate, look for dried fruits and/or nuts combined with chocolate via dipping or in bars. There will be new flavors, combinations, and “enhanced”chocolates, but if you are looking for real chocolate flavor you can always fall back on the classics.

Traceability for cacao beans is an increasingly important issue for artisanal chocolate producers. Being able to trace our beans from the tree to the bar provides a number of benefits. Along with the basic issue of knowing your source, traceability also provides important assurances about taste, quality, and production values.

On the aspect of taste, one of the issues that we continually face is Ecuador is the blending of Nacional with CCN-51 and other cacao varieties. Local growers may have multiple types of cacao growing in the same area and they have little incentive to keep the varieties separate throughout the fermentation and drying process. Buyers also tend to blend the cacao together as it continues its journey to market, clouding the overall flavor profile of the beans for the end buying.

By increasing transparency and deepening relationships with individual and cooperative growers associations, some of this separation and flavor blending can be reduced through heightened traceability for each cacao pod coming to market. This would help reduce the ongoing bastardization of the chocolate being produced under the Arriba name. Given the different pH values for the different cacao varieties and the effect that can have on the bitterness of the final product, this is extremely important to deliver consistent flavor to client palates.

Traceability goes beyond flavor – it has a significant impact on quality. In Ecuador, the systems for standardization of grading of cacao are not as rigorous as in other regions. This can cloud where and what type of cacao is being bought, and given the significant differences that exist in fermentation and drying practices throughout the country this is a serious concern.

Producing top quality chocolate requires top quality cacao, or at the very least a consistent quality of cacao. It’s hard to build a reputation with an inconsistent product, which of course ties back to the consistency of the cacao that you buy. Improving the traceability of cacao in Ecuador and elsewhere adds value to the pods by helping buyers know more predictably what they are bringing home.

Last but not least, traceability heavily influences production values. I’ve written before about the situation in Ecuador with regard to the difficulty of organic certification and the number of beans being labeled as Arriba that simply aren’t. Improving the ability of consumers to trace cacao pods back to their original growers can remove some of the ambiguity about growing practices and product labels. It would also cut down on the ability of graders to stamp cacao as a particular grade or source when it is clearly not what it’s label shows.

Artisanal chocolate producers and those with a love for fine chocolates have a vested interest in improving traceability. Traceability helps with flavor profiles, chocolate quality, and production value for pods. Though it isn’t always easy in local markets, working to improve traceability will have a long-term positive effect on the cacao industry.

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Welcome to Destination Ecuador!

Welcome to Destination Ecuador! My family and I have been living in Ecuador for the last four and a half years. We’ve dealt with the worst kinds of red-tape, searched out or ended up making hard-to-find ingredients ourselves, imported equipment for making chocolate confections, learned the import-export business...Continue >>

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