There were many things that impressed me on my recent visit to Ecuador, from the 130 varieties of hummingbird to the 4,500 species of orchid. But the only one I could put in my suitcase and bring back with me – although I have since discovered it is available in the UK – was Pacari chocolate.
I had the luck to meet Pacari’s founder, Santiago Peralta, who runs the small company with his wife. His enthusiasm and dedication to the process of getting the cacao bean from tree to bar has propelled this organic chocolate into top rankings at events such as the International Chocolate Awards, launched in London in October 2012, where the 70% Raw – organic and biodynamic – Bar won a Gold Award.
Apart from a quest for the perfect taste, the drive behind Pacari chocolate is also about creating a fair relationship with the Ecuadorean farmers, many of whom have never tasted the chocolate that the beans they harvest becomes. Paying “a significant premium” over market prices, which Peralta says are shockingly low, Pacari buys the beans in small batches. Production is carefully monitored, using low temperatures to preserve the antioxidants and maintain the naturally floral flavour of the arriba cacao bean. The whole process is as minimal as possible, reflecting the concept of Pacari – which in Quechua, an indigenous language of Ecuador, means “nature”.
The range of flavours in this premium, single origin, artisanal chocolate brand is wide. There are the Andean Bars, such as Salt & Nibs (my personal favourite), made using salt from the sacred valley of Cusco; the Chilli & Chocolate Bar that mixes merkén, a spice used by the Mapuche people of Chile; and the rich Ecuadorean chocolate with its spicy, smoky flavour (my second favourite). There are also chocolate-covered fruits (from guava to banana), plus chocolate bars that highlight the different flavours of the cacao bean grown in various parts of the country – Esmeraldas (banana, floral, honeyed) as opposed to Manabí (citrus and nut) or Los Ríos (fruit blossom, guanábana and roasted coffee).
It is also possible to use the chocolate to make a warming brew – a perfect pick-me-up in the winter months. At Mashpi Lodge, in the Ecuadorean cloud forest, they serve Pacari chocolate in espresso form, brought to the boil with orange, cinnamon and ishpingo – aromatic, silky rich and as smooth as velvet.