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.
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.
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.
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.
Arriba chocolate receives a lot of marketing hype. But what is it, where does it come from, and is what you’re getting really Arriba chocolate?
In the strictest sense, Arriba chocolate is produced from cacao in the upriver areas of the Guayas River in the lowland provinces of Ecuador. This would include areas in the province of Guayas, Bolivar, part of Cotopaxi, and Los Rios provinces (where the upper reaches of and tributaries to the Guayas River extend), in the strictest sense.
Legend has it that a Swiss chocolatier in the 19th century, while navigating along the Guayas River, encountered men bringing down freshly harvested cacao. Upon smelling it, he asked where it came from, and they responded “de rio arriba” or upriver. Since then, this variety of fine aroma cacao has been known as Arriba. Arriba is perhaps ultimately a type of terroir label for beans grown in the region of Ecuador upriver from the Guayas River and the chocolate made from those beans, with a specific flavor profile often characterized as having a distinct floral aroma. Climate, amount of sunshine and shade, soil composition, ripening, time of harvest, and bean fermentation are all factors that may contribute to the unique Arriba flavor profile.
If a denomination of origin were to be established based on the legend, then only cacao-and the chocolate produced from such cacao-from this area could truly be called Arriba. Nonetheless, there are a number of companies and brands that sell their products with the fashionable label Arriba. Because Ecuador is a major producer of fine flavor and aroma cocoa (as opposed to bulk cocoa used by most of the world’s lasrge chocolate manufacturers), the label implies the chocolate is made from fine flavor and aroma beans. And though much chocolate labeled Arriba may come in part from the Los Rios, Guayas, and other regions upriver of the Guayas river, technically the home of Arriba cocoa, much of it may also come from other provinces of Ecuador. These provinces may include Esmeraldas, Manabí, Napo, Orellana, Santo Domingo, Sucumbíos, and others. Beans from these areas are not known for, and never have been recognized for having the distinct Arriba flavor profile.
Another distinction often not mentioned regarding chocolates labeled Arriba is the actual variety of beans the chocolate is produced from. In Ecuador, there are two main varieties of beans, Nacional and CCN-51. Genetically, Nacional is considered a Forastero bean. However, Nacional grows only in Ecuador and alleged attempts to grow it in other regions have not produced the same flavor profiles. CCN-51 is an acronym for Collecion Castro Nacional, or according to others Collection Castro Naranjal. Carlos Castro, a well-known cacao breeder in Ecuador, created the hybrid of a Trinitario and Nacional and it was number 51 of his experiments. CCN-51 is a higher yielding, more disease resistant variety of cacao than Nacional. It is also sometimes called “Don Homero” variety. While both varieties of beans can produce quality chocolate, only Nacional beans were grown historically in the country, and the historical precedent for the Arriba flavor profile is based on Nacional beans, not CCN-51. Nonetheless, many of the beans leaving Ecuador destined for so-called Arriba chocolate are a mix of CCN-51 and Nacional beans, and these beans may or may not have originated from the original areas that supposedly provide the Arriba flavor profile.
Ultimately, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a chocolate is truly made from pure Nacional beans grown in the Arriba zone-within the area of Ecuador historically known for producing a special flavor profile. With increasing emphasis on traceability and origin, and increasing transparency in the chocolate industry, we may see the availability of true Arriba chocolate increasing.
Empanadas are one of Ecuador’s most ubiquitous, and of course popular, foods. You can find them in small shops along most streets, on street corners, and in almost any Ecuadorian restaurant both high and low-budget. Occasionally baked but usually fried-made even better by the use of fresh lard-they come in a variety of flavors.
Sunday we stopped at this little empanada-only shop in San Rafael, a suburban but bustling town just outside of Quito. My mother-in-law had recommended this place; they have two locations, the other is a few miles away in another part of town. All they sell here are empanadas, sodas, and beer. They come in several flavors, but the most common types here are made of plantain dough, which is made with fresh plantains and flour, or with a type of white corn called morocho, filled with just a bit of ground pork and peas.
“Old Country” Empanadas
Ecuadorian Hot Sauce AKA Ají in Spanish.
White empanada on left made of morocho or corn, on right, Chilean style empanada.
Our son Sebastian enjoying his cheese and plantain empanada and a Fanta.
Daily empanada list-corn, chilean style with meat, chicken, napolitan (cheese, tomato, oregano, and salami), cheese, plantain, and mejid-cheese and sugar in plantain dough, a sweet/salty mix.
Inside the shop.
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.