PACARI: Biodynamic Chocolate from Ecuador

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How do you adapt techniques that were designed for temperate climes to the tropics where there are no seasons? How do you make preparations which call for oak bark or stinging nettle, when in fact you don’t have any…?

It’s an interesting challenge, and one which (as I write) only Santiago Peralta and his wife, Carla, and their team of farmers have been willing to take on.

Apparently it all started back when the Berlin Wall was still standing. Santiago was an exchange student in Germany and was being hosted by a family who by his own admission were “very green.” It was this family who instilled in him an appreciation for treating the environment with a holistic approach.

Having finished his legal studies and upon realising that “there is no justice in law” he took matters into his own hands setting up Pacari Chocolate in 2001/2002.

Starting with just twenty producers at the beginning, they rapidly expanded to ~100 farmers. Nowadays, they work with 3500 different farmers, therefore providing a livelihood for approximately 20,000 people.

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Pacari Chocolate is available from Mococha, 89 rue Mouffetard, Paris until the end of December 2014.

Despite Ecuador having over 200 years of history making chocolate, Pacari is the first brand to come out of this country. Traditionally, it all went through cooperatives who forgot the provenance.

Forget Fairtrade. In Ethiopia, the average wage for a chocolate worker is 15€/month. In Equador, the government-imposed minimum monthly salary is 300€. Clearly that’s a great thing, but it shows one aspect of the enormity of Santiago and Carla’s task.

Anyway, why am I talking about chocolate on a blog that should be focussed on booze? Well, because it seems that making single-origin chocolate actually has some important overlaps with natural wine-making. It’s agriculture. Farmers have to cultivate the plant, then there’s the harvest, fermentation and eventual transformation into a product that we want to consume.

At a soirée last month at specialist chocolate shop Mococha during the Salon du Chocolat in Paris, Santiago took the time out to explain his reasoning and methodology. Due to cross-pollination over time (there have been cocoa plants here for at least 80 years!) there is no longer just one clone of plant. There is no set time for harvest either – it can take place at any time of the year. Each pod ripens according to its own rhythm.

Once separated from the pulp, the seeds ferment in the open air for 4-8 days. There’s no temperature control. At Pacari, they manage the whole production – from bean to bar.

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The guys at Pacari started working with biodynamics in 2005 and it took four years for the full conversion and subsequent Dementer certification. Hard work, apparently.

The challenge comes from adapting the techniques for seasonal biodynamics to the tropics and then adjusting according to subtleties between the lowlands where the cocoa grows and the highlands where you find the physallis tree.

Santiago confides that he occasionally solicits his mentor for advice, but the reply is most often rather vague. That this aspect of biodynamics has been under-developed… It’s an open book… And that Santiago should do what his instinct feels is best.

I’m not going to go into the details but apparently, the only prep that they really don’t do is the 507 (Valerian.) For the others, they’ve been able to adapt Steiner’s advice to their own purposes.

Ultimately, it becomes apparent during our conversation that is is most important to Santiago is that the whole chain be healthy and sustainable. He rejects what he calls the “standardisation of taste” and his range of raw chocolates reflect this.

“When you cook a carrot, you lose the vitamins,” he says. “When you eat an apple, you eat it as it is. Let’s make a chocolate in the same way and maybe that way, we won’t go to the doctor for medication so often.”

Find out more on their website.

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