Walking through the supermarket with my camera, I surreptitiously managed to take several shots. I say surreptitiously because management definitely would not approve. If you’ve read much of this blog before, you already know that most businesses here in Ecuador are highly protective of their information, and that includes pricing and products. Anyone seen gathering such information purposely would be highly suspicious…why, I don’t know. Do you?
One food handling practice that constantly pokes me in the eye is the eggs. Eggs are not refrigerated in Ecuador-not ever, not anywhere.
Even on the coast, where temperatures average in the 80s and 90s, you’ll find eggs on the supermarket shelf without cooling, eggs in the local store, eggs in the corner market, all just sitting out. And even if you buy eggs from the big producers, who do run egg farms, they still stamp them with dates that are 30 days out! Incredible, and I say it doesn’t work. I often get eggs which have 30 days on the “use by” label, and upon cracking them, the yolks immediately break, a sure sign of an egg which is not fresh.
Wines (and liquors) are expensive here and became extremely expensive a few months back, when Correa, Ecuador’s president, implemented some draconian import duties on most everything to save the country from running out of hard currency-the dollar, that is. Ecuador was importing far more goods than it was exporting, and so of course the dollars to pay for those imports were leaving the country faster than they were coming in. Once we put this crisis behind us, duties may come down again and some items might, just might, approach reasonable again.
On the other hand, bananas are cheap, and I mean so cheap, they’re almost giving them away. As the world’s largest exporter of bananas, it should be that way.
And these are high end bananas-you can find them cheaper elsewhere. You can buy pineapples on the roadside for as little as 3 for $1, sometimes less in the growing zones. You’ll see bananas, the defective ones, sometimes piled high in the back of a truck or on the side of the road-they’re used to feed the cows. However, these are not the Cavendish variety that are exported.
Of course, most of the time the bananas you find are not the blemish-free, spotless, even-colored ones we are accustomed to in the US. All the perfect ones get shipped abroad. I wasn’t able to confirm the current price for the 43 pound box of bananas that are the standard for shipping to the US and Europe, of the Cavendish variety, but it seems to be around $5.25 a box, and was recently as high as $11-$12 due to heavy rains in other parts of the world that decimated banana crops.
Plenty of chocolate fills the supermarket shelves, but not a whole lot of it is world-class, nor is much of it consumed here. Caoni has now taken up the majority of shelf-space in the chocolates section, next to Nestle, a few other mass market imports, and other sweets. Caoni has first-class packaging that belies what is to be found inside. It’s produced by Tulicorp, a local processor of cacao based in Guayaquil. Hearsay has it that one of the main investors behind it is Pronaca, Ecuador’s largest poultry, pork, and general mass food processor.
The rest of the mass market chocolates are either locally produced or imported from Colombia, and most contain vegetable fats and hydrogenated oils but no real cocoa butter. As far as appreciation for chocolate goes, most Ecuadorians think chocolate is chocolate. Per cents mean nothing to most consumers, and where it comes from-who cares? As long as it comes in a pretty package, is cheap, and there’s a good amount, most local consumers are happy.
While there is still plenty of basic home cooking going on and the pace of life is much slower here than in the so-called industrialized world, Ecuadorians love their instant soup mixes too. And soup, being part of the daily lunchtime ritual, is a highly popular item. Nestle again dominates the market here, under its Maggi brand of soups and condiments.
Finally, Ecuadorians are very big on cheese and dairy items. Locally made cheeses are abundant and the most popular kinds are fresh cheeses which keep only a few days after being opened and cannot be aged. There is also a Swiss contingent that has been here for decades, that produces a decent Gruyere, among other cheeses. Variety is thin, not the hundreds of regional cheeses like those found in France; there are no more than a dozen or so different types. Imported cheeses are costly as import duties are in place to protect local industry. Almost all dairy products here, especially the fresh ones, have a rich, deep flavor-probably because all the cattle here is free-roaming and grass-fed.
Cream and milk is most commonly purchased in UHT boxes; Nestle also seems to have major control over this sector. Fresh milk and cream can be spotty in quality; because Ecuador’s dairy cattle are almost purely grass fed, flavor and fat content tend to vary depending on the time of year. Also, fresh products are not homogenized so you often get fat separation.
I bet there’s a lot of equipment out there you’d love to have if you like to make chocolates. I know…I know what it’s like to crave that shiny immersion blender, those molds with the cool shapes-you can taste the fillings just thinking about it-that warmer that will hold 5, yes 5! whole kilos of melted chocolate. Many of these items have multiple uses and are also handy for making confections such as brittles, fondant, fudge, paté de fruit, and other items; you might as well learn to make these too, since so many of them go well with chocolate.
So here’s my list of items for the serious chocolate maker/confectioner. Let’s call you the “prosumer” like they do for camera models-you’re not a pro just yet, but you’d like to be, and you’re serious about making chocolates, though it might only be a seasonal thing. If I had to limit it to ten specific pieces of equipment you need, I’m doing it here. This is not counting the SS bowls, heat proof spatulas, and other basics that are handy to have around the kitchen:
Later I’ll be posting on where you can find these items at the best prices.
In no more than a few weeks, I´ve gained fame baking chocolate chip cookies from the NY Times recipe back from July ´08. It first caught my eye after reading about it on Chez Pim´s. Before I was able to actually sell the cookies, I had to make the recipe several times over and make the proper adjustments for altitude. My first cookies came out flat as pancakes. The second batch too. They were crispy all the way through and not bad, but not what I was looking for. I like them crispy and brown on the edges and chewy as you work your way towards, the middle, don’t you?
I tried extra an extra egg yolk for texture, that didn’t work. The brown sugar here is different than what you can get in the states-there is no “light” or “dark” brown sugar, just plain brown sugar. Tried varying the rations of brown to white, made little or no difference. I let a Venezuelan friend of mine, who owns a restaurant, try them and they didn’t like the “panela” flavor. Panela is the term for what is raw, unprocessed brown sugar, which usually comes in a solid block and has to be broken up before it can be used. But to me, the absence of brown sugar…well, you couldn’t call it a chocolate chip cookie, really, if it didn’t have brown sugar.
You can’t find bread flour here in Ecuador either, so I use all AP flour in the recipe. Worked fine for me here.
I found the key to getting cookies that did not spread too much was to use chilled dough. 50g portions were just right. A hot oven is also key. Success came using our convection oven preheated to 375F.
Finally, I realized the less I changed the original recipe, the better. Because of the altitude, I find that most muffin and cookie recipes can use up to 80% less leavening than at sea level. So, let me leave you with the recipe adjusted for high-altitude baking, 9,000 feet to be more or less exact. (BTW, if you have any tips, I’m still having trouble with high altitude pound cake). Adapted from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/09/dining/091crex.html?_r=1:
Time: 45 minutes (for 1 6-cookie batch), plus at least 24 hours’ chilling
475 g AP Flour
1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
280g unsalted butter
560g light brown sugar
225 g granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
500g bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves (I use 55% bars broken up in chunks)
1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.
3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.
4. Scoop 50g balls of chilled dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day.
Yield: Approx 3 dozen cookies.
Most of the year goes by without having to deal with too much corruption, but permit renewal is one period when I sometimes ask myself just why I put up with it. Every year around this time, we have to renew our health permit. It doesn’t matter that we already run a clean shop, abide by higher than normal hygiene, and do our best to make sure our products are safe and clean. The authorities are willing to recognize that. What they’re not willing to do is let anyone get away with being law abiding without paying a hefty fee, which is really all that matters to them.
This year, as usual, things have changed since last year. Instead of simply getting our health permit renewed, we now needed an inspection from the Fire Department. Last year we were supposed to have a fire department inspection, but in spite of contacting the fire department and setting up an appointment, they never showed up and never issued a permit.
But our “expediter” who is actually the same guy who issues the health permit from the Ministry of Healthy, insisted it was necessary that the inspection be carried out. He needed the inspection report from the FD before he could issue the permit.
After waiting several weeks, a man from the Fire Department showed up when we were out of town. This he made clear to us on his second visit; his motive for making this clear was cash. Since most government agencies don’t have budgets for things like transportation, it had cost him to come once and cost him again to come twice, and he insinuated that some kind of “compensation” should be given for having had to make two trips, since had to pay cab fare, or bus fare, to arrive.
During his inspection, he noted that we needed a 10 pound chemical powder fire extinguisher, in addition to the five pound one we already had, properly situated emergency evacuation lights, and smoke detectors in all four rooms of our workshop. He sat slowly making his notes and purposely forging an uncomfortable silence, obviously waiting for some offer of cash which would just make this all easily go away.
What he got was acceptance on our part to comply with the request, and no cash. He wasn’t happy about it. The form he left us noted what was needed; once we had put in place the requested items, then he or someone else would be back to re-inspect and have the form signed off on by the head of the fire department. But he didn’t really want to come back-he wanted the cash so he wouldn’t have the onerous burden of actually having to do his job.
We called our “expediter” at the Ministry and told him we had the inspection report. He told us straight-out we really didn’t need to actually comply with the requested items on the report. A copy of it sent over to him would suffice; my guess is he knows the fire department chief and would get it signed off on, probably sharing with the Chief a portion of the “fee” we pay him to get the permit issued.
At the same time, he sent us a form to sign off on stating that we would comply with the request in the Fire Department’s report within 90 days, and if we did not do so the Health Ministry had the right to revoke our permit. But of course, he is the Health Ministry, or at least he is the official in charge of enforcing the Health Ministry’s issuing of permits-so this form will probably just end up buried deep in some rusty file cabinet in some shadowy and dusty half-abandoned file storage closet in the Ministry. Ah, such is corruption!
My friend, well-known cocoa grower, and professional “catador” or bean taster has recently begun producing a new 55% chocolate. He purchases beans from around the Quevedo region and works with the processor on the production of the chocolate. We’ll be using this new single origin chocolate in many of our finished confections, as well as producing a bar from it for sale in the US, that we hope to make available in the coming months.
I’m also working with and reaching out to a small non-governmental organization who buys beans from small producers throughout the country. Like so many businesses here, they won’t tell me a lot about who’s processing the cocoa for them into chocolate, but the first samples they sent me last month were excellent, though a bit too sweet for the flavor profile I’m looking for. I’ve found that when arriba beans are done right and roasted at lower temperatures, you can end up with a really sweet chocolate at 55% cocoa solids, or even 70% or higher, such as some of the bars from Republica de Cacao-which is actually made by Confiteca, an Ecuadorian company that mostly focusses on producing sugar-based sweets.
I had a discussion recently with my friend Alex Morozoff of Cocoaroma magazine regarding the quality of beans. There are many who would assert that beans from small producers are of higher quality-I’m not sure of the arguments behind this position. However, one of the arguments made is that many small producers use little or no pesticides and basically gather cacao beans from the wild; if you drive around Ecuador enough, you can see that this is definitely true. Basically, without any conscious effort on their part, they are harvesting what amount to organic beans.
There are all kinds of areas throughout Ecuador where you may have a family living in a bamboo house on small plots of land, usually 10 acres or less, and there just happen to be some cocoa trees growing there. They are gathered seasonally and sold to brokers/buyers who are often located in the larger towns along some of the main highways. The argument against the quality of such beans is that these small “gatherers” often have little knowledge of drying or fermentation, and thus good beans are often rendered into poor quality ones due to improper post-harvest techniques. You’ll often even see small batches of beans (like no more than just a few kilos) being dried along the highways, where trucks and buses spewing out nasty diesel fumes are often passing by.
One of the arguments against large growers is that they are mono-cropping, thus damaging the natural habitat. Of course, this may have nothing to do with the quality of the cacao. Another argument is that they may be using pesticides more heavily. On the other side, however, larger growers often have better facilities for drying and fermenting, and more control over, and knowledge of, proper post-harvest techniques, resulting in a better final chocolate product.
We’ll continue to discuss and explore this topic, as well as our linkages with local organizations, growers, and manufacturers, in the future.