Saving Ecuador's Fine Flavor Cacao

Chocolate Addict Meets Master Chocolatier

This entry is part 6 of 18 in the series Ecuador

I have few remaining vices in life. I don’t smoke, drink, use drugs, gamble or even eat meat, but when it comes to chocolate I am a self-confessed addict, so when master chocolatier Jeffrey Stern left a comment on my blog inviting me to “come by for some chocolate and to learn about the fine flavor cacao industry in Ecuador,” I could barely contain my excitement. Of course I was interested in his story – how a young man from San Diego ended up owning a gourmet chocolate factory in Ecuador – but I must confess it was the prospect of free samples that had me in a taxi, bound for his factory, the morning after arriving in Quito.

Chocolatier Jeffrey Stern displays trays of handmade bonbons

Chocolatier Jeffrey Stern displays trays of handmade bonbons

Stern came to his passion quite accidentally. He arrived in Ecuador fresh out of college in 1994, newly hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Two years later, disenchanted with the integrity of foreign aid work, he returned to the United States with his Ecuadorian wife, Maria, and went back to school to pursue his interest in culinary arts. After graduating in 2002 he worked for restaurants, catering services, and as a personal chef, but it was his part time position in a chocolate shop that changed his life forever. “I got really interested in chocolate and started playing around with other methods and creations,” says Stern.

About that time, he and his wife and two children decided to come back to Quito for a visit. “At the time I had no idea that Ecuador is the world’s largest producer of fine grade cacao,” Stern admitted. He checked out the local chocolate stores looking for new ideas and soon learned that Ecuador was the leading source of Arriba Nacional Cacao, a native bean that produces the world’s most flavorful chocolate. Shortly afterward the couple decided to relocate to Quito and open a gourmet chocolate factory that they named Gianduja Chocolates.

I arrived mid-morning and knocked on the steel door marked only by the address Stern had provided. He buzzed me in and met me at the door of his tiny shop, from which emanated the most heavenly smell on earth – melted chocolate. Maria and the firm’s only employee were hard at work, placing chocolate ganache squares on metal rollers that carried the bonbons beneath a drenching machine in a scene eerily reminiscent of the famous “I Love Lucy” episode. When the chocolate-coated bonbons bounced out the other side, small squares of plastic known as “transfers” were applied to the top of each piece. Some transfers sport multi-colored designs in cocoa butter; the plastic is pressed into place on top of the hot bonbon and peeled off when the chocolate has cooled, transferring the design to the candy. In this case, however, Stern was using a transfer with a geometric design that left a checkerboard design on the finished chocolates.

The chocolate is "tempered" when it dries to a shiny gloss

The chocolate is "tempered" when it dries to a shiny gloss

Peeling the Mora jelly filling out of plastic molds

Peeling the Mora jelly filling out of plastic molds

A la "I Love Lucy" bonbons are placed on a moving belt for drenching with chocolate

A la "I Love Lucy" bonbons are placed on a moving belt for drenching with chocolate

Working the chocolate assembly line, with every step done by hand

Working the chocolate assembly line, with every step done by hand

Finished bonbons are set out to dry

Finished bonbons are set out to dry

Chocolates with geometric transfer sheets on top

Chocolates with geometric transfer sheets on top

An hour into the interview and tour, my mouth was watering and I was beginning to wonder if samples would be offered. Something in my face must have given me away, for Stern suddenly grinned and asked, “Would you like to taste one?” He handed me a bonbon that could not be sold because the transfer had accidentally been applied upside down. “It’s one of our specialties, blackberry pate de fruit (a jelly made from the local Mora berry), topped with a milk chocolate ganache and enrobed in 70% dark chocolate made from pure Nacional cacao beans.” My eyes rolled back in my head and I almost swooned. It was the best chocolate I have ever tasted.

An upside down transfer sheet made this bonbon unsaleable, so I got to eat it

An upside down transfer sheet made this bonbon unsaleable, so I got to eat it

More varieties of gourmet bonbons and another unsaleable one for me to eat

More varieties of gourmet bonbons and another unsaleable one for me to eat

Stern also makes specialty chocolate items like these teaspons

Stern also makes specialty chocolate items like these teaspons

...as well as chocolate teacups and vases

...as well as chocolate teacups and vases

Though Stern has finally begun to turn a profit after five years of operation, he is concerned about the cacao industry in Ecuador.  Many farmers have converted to a new hybrid cacao bean with the unglamorous moniker of CCN-51, since it has triple the yield of the Nacional bean and is more pest resistant. Unfortunately, CCN-51 is a lower quality bean that has a poorer flavor. Exacerbating the problem is the tendency to mix the two beans during fermentation. “The two varieties of cacao have different requirements for fermentation time (the first step in making chocolate that creates many of the precursors to chocolate flavor) but when they are processed together an average time is used, which
is not optimum for either bean,” Stern explained. As a result, both beans are degraded in quality.

Maria holds a bowl of unroasted cacao beans

Maria holds a bowl of unroasted cacao beans

Worried that Ecuador is in danger of losing its status as the world’s largest producer of fine flavored cocoa, the master chocolatier recently partnered with the owners of Millcreek Cacao Roasters to save the prized cacao variety. They hope to purchase raw Nacional beans from local growers for export to the U.S., where it will be painstakingly roasted at their a Salt Lake City plant. The resultant chocolate will be molded into shiny bars, hand-packaged, and sold at Millcreek Cacao’s existing locations, as well as online and through other venues. “Everyone wins in this scenario. Local growers get a fair price for their product and the world gets to enjoy the finest chocolate in the world,” says Stern.

In order to fund the new venture, Stern has launched a campaign at Kickstarter, the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects. If they receive $17,500 in pledges by December 23rd the project will be funded. If they do not reach their goal, no funds are collected from the backers and the project does not go forward. A pledge can be as little as $1 but backers who pledge $20 or more will receive gifts ranging from bars of chocolate to everlasting cacao pods if the project is funded.
 

I left Gianduja that afternoon on a chocolate high, having pledged to support Stern in the best way I know how – to spread the word about his project. Having sampled his blackberry, hazelnut, orange, lemon and caramel varieties on site, and purchased a box of additional flavors for later indulging, I can only hope that he is successful in raising the funds needed to go forward. As of this writing, he has attracted pledges in the amount of $580 from ten backers. If you can spare a dollar, you could be helping to save Ecuador’s Arriba Nacional cacao bean from extinction.

Series NavigationA Symphony of Animals in the Galapagos IslandsKick Your Shoes Off in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

12 Comments on “Chocolate Addict Meets Master Chocolatier

  1. Pingback: Changing of the Guard at the Presidential Palace, Quito, Ecuador | wandercast.TV

  2. Hi Barbara,
    These are mouthwatering photos! 🙂
    Beautiful and inspiring post.I just wanted to thank you for the lovely and inspiring conversations.

    • Thank you Google and Painless! glad you enjoyed my chocoholic moment.

  3. I had no idea Ecuador was a chocolate producer – what an informative article. However I’m miffed that you got me thinking about chocolate…now I want a bon bon.  Love the kickstarter project – will happily help promote if it mean it can save chocolate!

  4. Hi Marijke! So nice to hear from you; thanks so much for visiting my blog. Don’t know how inspiring I was, but if you thought so I am really pleased. Safe and happy travels to you now and in the future, and perhaps we shall cross paths again some day.

  5. Hi Barbara,
    mouthwatering photos! 🙂
    I just wanted to thank you for the lovely and inspiring conversations we had in the Hostal Cloud Forest, Chugchilán, Ecuador!

    Hope you manage to see the purple polar lights, soon!

    All the best and take care!

    Marijke (Germany)

  6. More accurately, it should say ”

    Exacerbating the problem is the tendency to mix the two beans during
    fermentation . “The two varieties of cacao have different
    requirements for fermentation time (the first step in making
    chocolate that creates many of the precursors to chocolate flavor)
    but when they are processed together an average time is used, which
    is not optimum for either bean,” Stern explained. As a result, both
    beans are degraded in quality.

  7. What a great idea Kickstarter is – I do hope they make their goal – I’ve made my pledge and hoping that the chocolate will be just as delicious as you describe

  8. This guy is my hero! I need to go to Ecuador now, if for no other reason than to try this chocolate!

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