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The “Hotel Savoy Inn,” a name that must be a throwback from perhaps the late sixties or early seventies when it was likely built, sits on a non-descriptive street just a block from one of Quito’s main arteries. Only recently has it been honored as the new home of the Lincoln Library. A few years ago the library had a much trendier and more upscale address.

The Lincoln Library is Quito’s (and maybe Ecuador’s) only English lending library, and was started by the ADD (no, not the acronym for Attention Deficit Disorder) but the Asociación de las Damas Diplomáticas Norteamericanas y Británicas, or the North American and British Diplomatic Ladies Association, as one of their charitable works. There are not a whole lot of books, but in a city and country without a whole lot of English language materials, it was a godsend before the Kindle arrived. Nonetheless, it´s an important place when you´re trying to inculcate the culture of reading into your kids, and therefore we´ve made it a regular place to visit on weekends. As to the no-longer upscale address, I had vague details of some sort of falling out among the ADD ladies, and perhaps this hurt their budget; the have also relocated their annual Christmas Bazar, which was a big deal and held every year at the Marriott Hotel, to the Savoy Inn.

But first, onward with the Hotel Savoy Inn. Most of it is dark and shadowy and not well lit, and it´s not very inviting. It has the air of a bygone era, it´s heyday has passed, the spotlight no longer shines on it, it´s passé, no longer the stylish place it once might have been. Far from any tourist attraction or the center of Quito´s tourist district, the Mariscal, it feels like it´s dying a slow and painful death. But it has some redeeming museum-like qualities. I especially enjoy passing through the empty seventies bar that is obviously no longer ever in use. I can imagine the feathered hair-dos, the long dresses, the dapper dressers in sharkskin suits tying one on in the dimly lit, low-ceilinged room, with recessed square windows sunk deep in the wall,  in blue, yellow and green colors, the perfect mix of psychedelia and intimacy. The walls are decked out with artistic scenes of glorious mountains, rushing waterfalls, and multi-hued sunsets, the kind of paintings you´d see advertised on late-night TV commercials for the come-now-mega-art-swap-meet-over-300-artists-in-one-place-50,000-square-feet-fabulous deals-don’t miss-it-one-of-a-kind-event!

The library is two floors up, a converted conference room filled with old shelves of all types. The door is like any of the other doors to all the other conference room, with frosted glass and the insignia of the hotel in the middle, with the exception of a ¨We´re Open¨ sign hanging on it, and a jingly bell that sounds when you open it-making you feel like you´re entering some cutesy shop in small-town America, some place like Annapolis, Maryland. Inside, Alfonso is an older gentleman who speaks English quite well and gets to know your reading preferences quickly, always offering up whatever he might have that´s new and may be of interest to you. He´s got a candy jar he always offers to the kids-without first consenting with the parents, of course.

There´s a good selection of contemporary thrillers, mysteries and recent titles by authors such as Ludlum, Crichton, and others, as well as dozens of old textbooks such as Vector Analysis with an Introduction to Tensor Analysis, and Structural Engineering, as well as plenty of titles you´ve never even imagined such as The Jewish-Japanese Sex and Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves. For the kids there are titles you´d never look for nowadays, including books by Alfred Hitchcock (I thought he only made movies before I set foot in here and discovered his mysteries), as well as the ever-popular Enid Blyton books.

But what I like best is that while it´s a lending library, it doesn´t really matter if you misplace the book. I don´t think Alfonso will charge you for it. Or you can opt to replace it with another book if you have one at home. The small fee you pay is worth the price; it’s $15 a year to be a member, and $0.30 for two weeks for each book you take out. Best of all, while the hours are somewhat limited, usually to something like 10-12 four days of the week, Alfonso is there to greet you every Saturday, no matter what the weather or holiday.

Location: Yasuni and El Inca, Sector Iglesia El Carmelo.

Over fifteen years ago I made the trip to the Saquisilí market a few hours south of Quito. I didnt´really know what I was looking for or what I was going to buy when I got there. But like so many places you go to explore and come back with something you didn´t expect to own, or maybe didn´t even know existed, I came pack with several hand-carved wooden masks used in traditional festivals held by Ecuador´s native peoples. The masks are often used in dances that take place in small towns to celebrate certain seasonal and/or quasi-religious events. The men who wear them have often been drinking. And things sometimes get rough, very rough, even deadly. None of this ever occurred to me when I bought the masks. Nor am I strong believer in the hocus-pocus idea that maybe the masks had some kind of bad energy. So the masks have been hanging in our house, on the walls, for the last 14 years, until we moved just this February.

The idea of getting rid of them came from our friend Margara Anhalzer, the owner of one of Quito’s very high-end craft shops. Her store, called Olga Fisch, the name of the Hungarian immigrant who started the store several decades ago, carries exclusive Ecuadorian handicrafts from all over the country. Somehow, in one of our stops over there to leave off some of our chocolate products which she sells, the topic of the masks came up and she was the one who suggested they might have bad energy and we should maybe consider getting rid of them. I think we had been discussing how the business was struggling and we still weren’t sure we were going to make it.

Anyway, we gave a mask to each of the movers who helped us. I hope they didn’t really have any bad energy and that all these helpful fellows are still doing just fine. Coincidentally, though, the business is doing a lot better.

Through simple word of mouth and perhaps just coincidence, people have started to look for us more than ever. A new client, another owner of an artisan crafts store in Quito’s old city, surfaced in February and began buying chocolates, several hundred a week, and has been coming back regularly ever since. From Guayaquil, a woman who owns a pastry shop  found us on the internet, and we started business with her a little over a month ago. These are good solid wholesale accounts.

And finally, as I mentioned some time ago, our private client which owns a gourmet chocolate brand sold here in Ecuador and overseas, for whom we make filled chocolates, is having fairly brisk sales at the Duty Free Shop in the Quito Airport, and while not great sales in the Plaza Foch, it’s still money in the bank. For those of you still curious to know who it is, I’ll give you a few hints…the first part of their name starts with the spanish word for Republic-as in Banana Republic-but ends in the spanish word for Cocoa, as in Cacao.

I wish I could tell you I was too busy making chocolate and other stuff to write…but no, that’s not it. I wish I could tell you I haven’t had the typical complications many a small business owner faces, many of which, I have discovered in my conversations with others, are simply par for the course, the normal, everyday winds of adversity. Nonetheless, all has not been awry, we’ve actually also been on vacation in California, back in my hometown of Solana Beach.

While there, we did a bunch of fun stuff with the kids, like Legoland, Seaworld, trips to the beach, many afternoons in the pool, among other things…while I also dealt with PR problems, meeting brokers, packaging and labeling design, equipment needs, and other fun business stuff you don’t usually here about here on my blog. But I’ll spare the details for later…

I’m now back in Ecuador, and we’re ramping up production for the fall. This week we’ve been especially enjoying playing with the new panning machine-it’s a Kitchenaid drum attachment for panning. I’ll post more about it later because I have to go back and add some more chocolate to the cocoa beans we’re working on for export. But for now, I can say we must have the near perfect environment for doing it because even the first batch of almonds turned out perfect!

Arriba Chocolate

In a previous post, I discussed the definition of “Arriba” chocolate and beans-while there’s no legal definition, Arriba can be used to denominate either beans of the Nacional variety from the “Arriba” or upriver area of the Guayas River Basin in the lowlands of southwestern Ecuador, or chocolate made from those beans. So is Arriba a chocolate or a type of bean? It can be both, depending on with whom you are speaking. Growers may call their beans Arriba variety, and chocolate manufacturers may call their finished chocolate Arriba. Many beans in Ecuador are labeled “Arriba” when they may not actually be, due to the blending of different bean varieties which is a common practice in Ecuador. You are probably asking, ok, why does this matter?

The loss of the Arriba flavor profile is happening right now. This is due to the bastardization of the chocolate being produced under the Arriba name, as well as widespread abuse by marketers of the name Arriba. The loss of the Arriba flavor profile would mean increasing homogeneity of fine chocolate, and all chocolates for that matter. The Arriba flavor is an important one, recognized for its unique floral aroma, deep chocolate flavor, and lack of bitterness.

Arriba Vs. CCN-51

The Nacional bean, from which Arriba chocolate originates, is decreasing in production, while production of the more popular CCN-51 variety is increasing. Due to the Nacional variety’s higher vulnerability to disease, particularly Monilla and Witch’s Broom, either of which can severely affect or even destroy an entire cocoa plantation, the cultivation of the Nacional variety of bean is decreasing in Ecuador. The CCN-51 variety is being planted more frequently due to its disease resistance and higher yields, at least double that of the Nacional variety on a per hectare basis.

The CCN-51 variety does not have the same flavor profile as Nacional beans, and while a very good quality chocolate can be made from CCN-51, it requires different fermentation and post-harvest treatment from Nacional beans. However, CCN-51 and Nacional beans are often mixed together either pre or post-fermentation. This common practice in Ecuador debases both the value and flavor of the resulting chocolate. This practice is a major, ongoing controversy in the Ecuadorian chocolate industry.

Growers do not have any financial incentive to separate beans post-harvest, nor to ferment and treat them differently. Nor do most buyers of beans have any incentive to distinguish between Arriba, Nacional, or CCN-51, as most chocolate lovers have had little, if any information, about the industry practices discussed here, and are unaware of these issues until just recently. Furthermore, there is no recognition such as a denomination of origin for the Arriba bean. Thus, beans from the north coast, the Amazon, and other parts of Ecuador not recognized for the Arriba flavor are nonetheless frequently labeled Arriba, as well as the chocolates made from these beans, for marketing purposes.

Support for Nacional and Arriba Beans

Fortunately, ANECACAO and other governmental and non-governmental organizations are, through education, training, and publications, encouraging both small and large producers of cacao to practice and maintain separation of CCN-51 variety and Nacional variety beans. However, these efforts are not enough. Because most commodity brokers, local buyers of beans (aka “patios” in Ecuador-local cacao merchants who buy from local farms, then consolidate large amounts of cacao for brokers, commodity houses, and large muli-nationals such as ADM or Kraft) of cacao in Ecuador’s cocoa growing regions, and cacao traders do not pay a premium for Nacional beans, mixing is still a frequent and common occurrence. The current lack of transparency and standards in Ecuador make preventing the mixing of bean varieties difficult, if not impossible, to stop.

A recently implemented practice by some farms and cacao buyers in Ecuador is helping to preserve the Arriba profile. Some farms are growing only the Nacional variety of bean and selling it as such-though, because of the absence of a price premium, these beans may be ultimately mixed with CCN-51. Other farms grow only CCN-51 and clearly label it as such. Finally, some buyer’s patios and even commodity houses (namely-Transmar) have recently begun to buy beans “en baba”, or freshly harvested and unfermented, or even in the pod, allowing them to know the variety of the bean and control the fermentation process. A newspaper piece was recently done on this practice and is discussed here.

With this knowledge, what can you do to support Arriba chocolate? First, buy chocolate labeled Arriba only if the manufacturer can provide traceability of both the bean variety used in the chocolate and geographical origin for the beans used in that chocolate. For example, a chocolate labeled “Esmeraldas” from Ecuador or “Manabí” from Ecuador is not an Arriba chocolate. Ask your favorite Ecuadorian chocolate companies, or those selling Ecuadorian single origin chocolates if they are aware of the use of CCN-51 beans in the what is commonly labeled Nacional or Arriba chocolate. Now that you know the distinctions, use your wallet to vote for the support of Arriba beans and chocolate. Ultimately, the establishment of a denomination of origin for Arriba beans and chocolates would benefit growers in Ecuador by granting them a premium price for their beans, help chocolate makers by allowing them to certify the origin and quality of their beans, and increase choice and traceability of the final product for consumers.

USDA Organic Emblem
Aequare Chocolates gets frequent inquiries as to why we’re not organic. It’s not because we don’t want to be, or don’t support organic. It’s because we simply can’t, for all practical purposes, be organic.

Organic Chocolate For Bars And Organic Couverture

First off, all organic chocolate actually produced here in country is shipped abroad and almost none of it is for sale here. It’s shipped abroad directly by its producers because there is a market for it abroad. Consumers in North America and Europe, as well as many other places, have the disposable income that allows them the choice and provides them the ability to choose between organic or conventional products. Here in Ecuador, personal income levels are not high enough and consumption patterns are not adapted to supporting organic products.

Were the local manufacturers of organic chocolate to try and sell organic chocolate here, they’d probably go broke. Most consumers would not see the value in paying a higher price for an organic product. It would have no additional recognized value in the local market and simply would not sell for a higher price. Organic producers would be forced to compete on price alone, and they would lose money.

Since we don’t actually make our own chocolate, and don’t have the volume needed to have someone process organic beans into chocolate for us locally, we can’t make organic chocolate here. We have approached two of the companies that do make certified organic chocolate about purchasing organic couverture from them. One is a large contract manufacturer and simply can’t sell us what organic chocolate they produce because the production is for another company’s product that is shipped abroad. The other offered to sell us couverture, but at a price that was so high it would be impossible to make money from.

Our main supplier of chocolate, who is also the grower of the beans, uses minimal amounts of pesticides and fertilizers on the cacao plantations he manages. This is the case for most cacao growers in Ecuador; the majority of beans come from small landowners who usually can’t even afford pesticides or fertilizers, and cacao is basically a gathering activity from plants that are growing in a semi-wild state on their properties. To become certified organic is a lengthy, costly and complicated process that the majority of growers probably can’t afford. In no way do we mean to belittle the value of organic; but the certification process can be more exclusive than inclusive.

What About Confections With Organic Ingredients?

You can already see why we can’t make organic bars, and for many of the same reasons, organic confections. We can’t even get the most important component, the organic chocolate, to start with.

Beyond the chocolate, which is difficult enough to obtain, many other organic ingredients are simply not available in Ecuador. Let’s start with sugar. The local manufacturers or organic chocolate temporarily import their organic sugar from abroad. Temporary importation is a very complex, bureaucratic, and costly process. Temporary importation allows the user of the product to avoid paying duties on it by guaranteeing the product is going to be shipped out of the country again within a certain time frame. Since it’s only coming into the country as an input for a specific product that is destined for export, no duties are levied on it. This also means that it’s not for sale on the open market.

Organic dairy products are non-existent in Ecuador. While for practical purposes many dairy products could be considered “organic” because of the non-industrialized nature of most of the dairy industry here, that’s obviously not good enough for consumers in industrialized countries looking for an official seal of approval. So getting organic cream and butter in Ecuador with an internationally recognized organic seal?…forget it.

Then there are other items that go into our products, such as fruit purees, citrus zests, and essential oils, most of which are sourced locally but very few of which are organic, with the exception of the lemongrass oil from Fundación Chankuap used to flavor our lemongrass bars.

So due to costs, volume constraints, regulations, and lack of availability of organic ingredients, it’s difficult if not impossible to do organic confections here in Ecuador. Finally, making 100% organic chocolate, as well as confections, is not compatible with our direct trade efforts. But more on direct trade in a later post.

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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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