Taste for Travel talks about ethical chocolate with American Dan Cilo, who is passionate about building good business values in vulnerable Peruvian communities. And if you want to visit the plantation, it can be arranged.
Dan is a man on a mission. “We want people to know where their chocolate comes from and who is making it and the real benefit of doing business in a way that helps people as opposed to maximizing profit,” he says.
The chocolatier, with Peruvian Chocolate’s HQ in Rockville, Maryland, has a long-standing passion for the eastern side of the Andes – pristine hillsides, punctuated with vivid birds and flowers, cacao pods hanging from the broad-leafed trees. The straw-roofed homes look the same now as they did hundreds of years ago.
“It feels like paradise when you visit, but you realize how hard it is to live there,” Dan says. “Talking to the farmers you can sense their appreciation for the natural beauty that surrounds them.”
Dan’s company, La Orquidea, focuses on quality at an affordable price. The reason the factory was built in Tarapoto, northern Peru was to provide a local buyer who paid a fair price for cacao. Ethical chocolate is a fair trade.
“The factory did not have to extra money to pay the fair trade certification/tax, so we do our best to explain the mission of this small chocolate producer.
“We are working to increase awareness and appreciation of Peruvian chocolate in the US. We focus on capturing the flavors that our small farmers worked to develop in their beans in each of our bars. We are striving to be the change we want to see in the world.”
- “As the Andes descend into the Amazon, you encounter the lush vegetation covered hills in which you can find our cacao trees. The remote trees are barely traversable in a 4×4 are where small plantations are maintained by a family,” explains Dan.
La Orquidea chocolates is working to preserve a unique variety of cacao in Peru. The locally termed criollo bean doesn’t produce as much as the hybrid cacao trees but produces a superior flavor. The tree produces one harvest a year instead of the fairly constant harvest of hybrid trees.
La Orquidea received funding from USAID to encourage a native community to preserve the native cacao tree instead of cutting it down for the higher-yielding hybrid. The company pays these farmers a higher price for the rarer bean to produce a chocolate with a unique flavor profile.
“Peruvian chocolate is bolder and more flavorful than many of the buttery offerings which many people enjoy,” Dan says. “Our chocolates have layers of flavors that develop as you eat. Small batches of specialty chocolate made from artisan beans makes for a special experience.”
The story of chocolate in Peru is a deeper story than the type of climate, soil and genetics. Peruvian cacao farmers are one of the few alternative crops to coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine. While local people use the leaf as medicine and many have a coca bush growing in the back yard, there used to be much more coca leaf than was necessary for folk medicine use. In 1988 a plan was hatched to encourage farmers to switch from coca to cacao. Cacao thrived in the same climate as coca, so there was hope in moving farmers from one crop to the other.
However the price that international commodities brokers were willing to pay for cacao was much lower than that of coca, making it difficult to ensure the resolve of the farmers who were growing cacao.
In 1998 a chocolate factory was built in Tarapoto, northern Peru, to provide a local buyer who paid a fair price for coca beans. Swiss technicians were consulted in the construction of the facility and trained local women in the craft of specialty chocolate. Using the same traditions as the European chocolatiers, a small group of Peruvian women began a journey that continues today.
The women form and wrap each bar by hand. They also mix in ingredients like kiwicha and quinoa. Small batches of specialty chocolate is the result. Beans are graded as they enter the facility and those fermented between certain percentages are used for the dark chocolate line. The factory provides loans to the women who work at the factory so they can buy a motorcycle, the most efficient means of transportation in the jungle of Peru.
Here’s La Orquidea’s staff hard at work (pictured above) making delicious Peruvian chocolate. The main benefit of having the factory where the cacao is grown is the jobs created. Most chocolate companies source their beans from the developing region of the world around the equator and then make the chocolate in Europe. Exporting the beans to Europe exports job opportunities from a region that really needs the work to stay local. Keeping jobs in Peru also provides opportunities to women beyond the fields.
“The point I am trying to make is that a small company like La Orquidea is trying to do the right thing in their community because they see the damage done by the illicit drug trade and want to work toward a lasting solution,” says Dan.
If you’re interested in travelling to the region, contact Martin Zamora at Tarapoto Travel. www.TarapotoTravel.com
More info on Dan’s chocolates: www.peruvianchocolate.com
*Photographs courtesy of Dan Cilo