When I think seriously about becoming a locavore, I cringe at the thought of giving up coffee, avocados and especially chocolate. Seventy percent of the world's cacao beans are cultivated in Africa, according to Francisco Meza of El Quetzal de Mindo, a chocolatier in the cloud forest of Ecuador.
Now, a couple of chocolate makers are operating out of Mindo, making a handmade product with locally-sourced beans. They use Ecuadorian Cacao Nacional, a cacao bean that is grown on small family farms in Puerto Quito, 40 miles from Mindo.
These chocolatiers are helping to turn Mindo into a chocolate heaven, where visitors can take tours and get schooled in the chocolate-making process.
Upon arriving, my family quickly signed up for a chocolate-making tour with Arte Sano Mindo, a business that was recently acquired by Jackeline Ramirez, a Chilean immigrant.
We spent an evening in her chocolate factory sampling cacao syrup, then toasting, grinding and pressing the beans. Jackeline runs a very small-scale operation, selling the product out of her storefront.
She brought a warmth to the story of chocolate, and her passion for this delightful bean was paramount. Finally, she served a chocolate fondue with fresh fruit to end the evening.
A few days later, I paid a visit to El Quetzal, farther up the hill. This business was founded by Jose Meza of Riobamba, Ecuador (and later a U.S. resident for decades before returning to Ecuador). The business creates small batches of hand-wrapped chocolate, and also operates a restaurant and two-room hotel.
During the tour, Francisco Meza, Jose's brother, said they are the largest employer in Mindo, with 20 employees.
Cooperative Nueva Esperanza, a network of 80 small farms cultivating between 1 and 10 hectares. Francisco says that although the farms aren't certified organic, they follow organic practices. Farmers mix several crops on their farms, including papaya, banana and passion fruit to avoid pest problems.
"These farms are not monocultures," says Francisco. "As a result, they have lower volumes and the farming practices can't be mechanized. The way we are doing it over here takes more labor. It is probably cost prohibitive in other places, but it is a way of life here."
El Quetzal encourages cacao farmers to sell more than just a raw product, requesting them to at least ferment and dry the cacao beans before selling them. This greatly increases the price the farmers could receive for their product, and also reduces the weight making it easier for transport.
The brothers hope one day the farmers may even offer a finished product, but Francisco said there is hesitation. Perhaps farmers are concern about making the upfront investment, because they are uncertain of the market demand.
During the chocolate tour, Francisco showed us around their gardens, with sugar cane, coffee plants, banana trees and other common foods that many Americans consume daily. The tour ends with a sample of a brownie, served with ginger and cacao syrup.
After the tour, I asked Francisco about his take on the tourism boom in Mindo and related concerns. He said that Mindo is the No. 1 birding destination and he is concerned about the impact of construction on habitat.
Although the Mindo-Nambillo Ecological Reserve protects a large around around Mindo, the other side is not protected. He sees properties being bought up by city dwellers, which raises the prices of real estate for all and can have an economic impact on locals as well.
Images by Sarah Lozanova
<a href="http://www.sarahlozanova.com">Sarah Lozanova</a> is a green copywriter and communications professional specializing in renewable energy and clean technology. She is a consultant for Sustainable Solutions Group and a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Home Power, Earth911, and Green Builder. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine.