Chocolate. The very word can elicit desire in many of its fans. I, myself, have been known to salivate over the mere thought of this tasty treat, which is why I knew that our family trip to Mindo was going to include a visit to one of the two chocolate factories in operation.
El Quetzal is the larger of the two and despite its unspectacular exterior, the building housed a cozy and modern café and of course a display of mouth-watering chocolate products available for sale. Tours of the chocolate factory were also provided several times per day which I knew was a must for any self-respecting chocophile. Plus there were rumors of samples, so off I went.
Our English-speaking guide, Luis, started us off with a brief history of how the business came into existence. Even though Ecuador grows some of the finest cacao in the world, most of it is shipped off for processing in other countries. The prepared chocolate that is found in Ecuador is for the most part sub-par with a very low cacao content. Therefore, El Quetzal has set about producing quality chocolate right here in Ecuador. With that in mind we set off to see how the operation works.
First up was the garden. Much of the produce used in the café and added to some of the chocolate products (ginger, hot peppers, coffee, etc.) is grown right on El Quetzal’s property. All of the unused organic matter is composted and used as fertilizer for the garden so there is very little waste.
The one thing that can’t be grown here is the cacao beans themselves. Mindo is too high in elevation to support the ripening of cacao pods, so the beans are purchased from farmers several hours away and brought back to Mindo for the next steps.
Next they are spread on large drying racks where they are turned and stirred each day for approximately two weeks.
Once the inside of the beans turn a deep purple they are ready to roast. If the interior holds a bright hue, the timing is too early.
After roasting the beans, they are then crushed into small pieces. Afterwards the chunks of shell are separated from the chunks of bean, called nibs.
The nibs are crushed into a paste then put into special machines where sugar is added, then constantly spun for 72 hours.
The paste is pressed to separate the cacao butter and leave only dry cacao powder.
The chocolate is then tempered in a cold room where the temperature is gradually reduced so as to leave a smooth chocolate surface with no streaks, poured into molds, then tempered in a refrigerator for two hours. Once cool, the edges of the bars are trimmed, and then hand-wrapped.
At the end of our tour we were given samples of various chocolate products. You’ll have to forgive the lack of photos here as I was too busy sampling to be bothered to snap a few shots of the goods. Try to use your imaginations as I describe the tastiness that followed.
First we were given a cup of 100% pure chocolate with nothing added, not even sugar. I did manage a shot of this and though it appears delicious it was very bitter and half a small spoonful was akin to a mouthful of peanut butter. They really should have served a glass of milk to wash that down and rehydrate our mouths.
We were then instructed to take another spoonful, but this time sugar was dumped on and after mixing it around in my mouth it tasted more like the dark chocolate that I know and love. We repeated this process several times with various additions to the chocolate. We were also given samples of a chocolate BBQ sauce and a scrumptious large brownie. After the samples we were given a chance to purchase the various products which included various flavors of chocolate bars, coffee, honey, ginger syrup, cacao salad dressing, caramelized ginger, tea, and blocks of unsweetened chocolate.
If you ever find yourself in Mindo and are a lover of chocolate definitely stop at El Quetzal which can be found atop the lonely dirt hill just to the left of the town square (as you come in to town). The tour itself costs $5 (US) per person, however the samples at the end just about make up for the fee.