February 26, 2013
I caught up with Santiago Peralta of Pacari to talk about Ecuador and its prize winning cacao.
Santiago Peralta is on a roll! Pacari, the Equadorian chocolate company that he founded ten years ago, swept the boards of The International Chocolate Awards 2012, and it would be hard to find someone more proud and passionate about the future of fine chocolate.
As the International Chocolate Awards heats for 2013 begin, I wanted to bring you this profile of the exciting chocolate and maker that shone so brightly in the 2012 competition.
Santiago Peralta states that his reason for founding Pacari was “Justice!” Having studied law in Portugal, and finding little of it in evidence, he was drawn to the plight of cacao farmers in his native Ecuador.
“When I saw these poor farmers, producing maybe the best cacao on earth, being so badly treated and paid, it got to me.”
He started by selling cacao beans, then nibs, and realising that there was little point continuing if the chocolate makers who got their hands on it were going to destroy the purity of it’s stunning flavours, he began to make chocolate himself. Without any formal training it was a case of learning on the job.
“Each thing we tried taught us something different. We did not go to a school of chocolate, we learnt by trial and error.”
Santiago is visibly touched by the recent success of his chocolate.
“Before, we were there, but it was not clear. Right now it is clear! Now I can say that we have interesting chocolate!”
It appears also to have turned him into something of a celebrity in Ecuador. Farmers, having seen the success story on TV, are proud as punch of their national success. There is talk of creating a special holiday in honour of the achievements.
Santiago is immensely proud of Ecuador, and thinks his chocolate peerless. But he is nothing if not humble in his declaration that he is just the front man. There are many other people behind the chocolate, and that is what makes it special, and important, important above all as an example of the potential future of cacao farming and chocolate production.
Certainly, along with Mott Green’s Grenada Chocolate Company, it has been unique, and uniquely successful, in making chocolate in the growing country. It has also spearheaded an exciting and vital new model of close interaction and communication between the origins of the beans and the finished product. It is something that others are learning from, and could hopefully inspire a sea change in the relationships and production methods within the industry.
But what of that award winning chocolate itself? What is it like? I am lucky enough to have a stash of Pacari bars given to me by Santiago. In fact the chocolate is not hard to get hold of, it is sold by Wholefoods, a variety of other specialist stores and the raw products are sold online through the Raw Chocolate Shop. However I have a full range of the plain bars in order to do a taste comparison for you, as an exploration of their recent delicious work. I have the rare Piura, and I have been guarding a bar of the almost nonexistent Nube with my life, knowing that Santiago is struggling to find more of the cacao beans to produce it, which means once current stocks are finished it may be extinct.
Pacari Raw 70% was the first bar of theirs I tasted, and the first, and only, raw chocolate I have so far thought worth eating. But it has now gone way beyond that. It is not for nothing that it won the ICA World Gold Award for best dark bar. Best dark chocolate bar in the world! That is quite some achievement. Of course there are others that are stunning, and ultimately you may like one of the others more. But this is a truly deserving winner. It is ground-breaking in it’s purity of flavour, perfectly true to the beans that went to create it. It is complex, and I find something new every time I eat it, but above all it is bright and green, lemony and leafy with green bananas. Its tang also reminds me of the pleasant acidity of a fine sourdough bread. It then mellows into notes of almond and coffee, and has a long cocoa aftertaste.
It’s gutsy elder brother, the Raw 85%, has much of the appeal of the 70%, but is altogether darker, as you would expect. It lacks some of the fruitier notes, and for me is redolent of the sharp smoky kick you get from munching a coffee bean. Although of course this chocolate is smooth and much more palatable. It is a great pick me up, but when I go back to the 70% afterwards I have to conclude that I prefer it. The 70% lacks nothing of its intensity, but tastes as if honeyed flowers have been added to heighten your pleasure.
Nothing in the raw approaches the level of floral aromas that flood the palate when tasting the Nube 70%. It is like a walk through a wild flower and herb garden, where lavender and rosemary predominate and you can make out the dew on the lilies of the valley. Am I getting too romantic in my description!? It is really extraordinary. A lesson in how varied and complex the cacao bean can be. And then it pleased me hugely with an ending of pure chocolate and notes of walnut.
The Piura 70% is Pacari’s first foray into using beans from outside Ecuador, in this case a white-beaned cacao from Peru. The colour of the beans produces a chocolate that is strikingly light, almost like a milk chocolate, despite it percentage. It has a pure honeyed chocolate smell, with some cherries thrown in. There is some fruitiness in the taste too, at the outset it brings to mind apricots, and then honey. Then the mild nuttiness characteristic of this cacao comes in, like a macadamia or a cashew. Throughout it remains sweet and smooth, with honey and toffee never far from my thoughts. It is totally different to all the other bars, yet another example of the wonder of the cacao bean.
In addition to their plain bars Pacari have also made a great success of flavoured bars and enrobed fruits and nibs. Their Raw 70% bars with Maca, and that with Salt and Nibs both won silver awards in the world finals, and their 60% with Lemongrass won gold. The latter has an aroma like a tisane, steering well clear of being perfumed, while still unmistakeably floral. To me it is a great marriage of their chocolate with the delicate citrus herb notes of lemon verbena. Lemongrass does sum up the fresh greenness present in Pacari chocolates, but I find this more like the herb the French so love in their infusions. On closer inspection of the packet the herb is listed as Hierba Luisa in Spanish and Verveine Citronelle in French, both of which translate as lemon verbena. So I think that is a fair assessment of its delicate flavour. Of the enrobed fruits, the nibs have become a bit of a late afternoon essential for me, a perfect little boost. And the golden berries, which won a gold awards in the European semi-finals for enrobed whole fruits, are quite delicious. Complex, true to the cacao, full of little surprises and easy to like, much like all of Pacari’s chocolates and Santiago himself.