I recently got back from Ecuador, and let me just humbly brag for a second — it was seriously one of the most amazing trips I’ve been blessed to take for my job at Candy Industry Magazine.
Salpa’s CEO Jean-Paul Burrus hosted me at his hacienda in Guayaquil, which is in the southern part of the country. And we spent two days of the trip touring the company’s two San Fernando cocoa plantations near the city.
Jean-Paul Burrus, 62, only decided to purchase the cocoa fields a few years ago, thinking it would be a great way to control the entire process for Salpa’s chocolate brands. Of course, it also had the added bonus of allowing him to escape to a tropical paradise multiple times a year — not that his home country, France, is so bad.
I’ll write more about the company’s operations in Ecuador for the July issue of Candy Industry magazine. But for now I wanted to focus on the cocoa itself.
This was only the second time I’ve had the chance to visit actual cocoa fields, seeing as how it doesn’t grow much in my home state of Illinois, or even my home country for that matter (OK, there is Hawaii.).
So many people have no idea where chocolate bars at the grocery store come from, and I confess to forgetting their origins near the equator most of the time myself.
But when you’re walking through fields so humid that you feel like you’re navigating a cloud, and sun so hot that you’d rather wear a long black sweater than risk getting a sunburn, it’s hard not to be in awe of all the red cocoa pods hanging from the trees and the work that goes into transforming a small pink flower into truffles.
While we were on one of the plantations we had the chance to see Salpa’s quality control area, where they regularly slice cocoa beans in half to check their fermentation levels, and conjure up 100 percent cocoa chocolate bars to make sure the beans are perfect.
The 100 percent cocoa bars have this way of luring you in by looking like perfect chocolate bars, and then tasting so bitter that it’s hard to actually swallow the piece you popped in your mouth.
And when you take a bite you can’t help but wonder how human beings took a red pod full of white gooey seeds and figured out that if you ferment and dry them in the sun and then add sugar, you’d get chocolate.
The cocoa fields also have this way of completely engulfing your senses so that as you walk through uneven dirt paths past cocoa pods enticingly dangling from trees, it’s suddenly impossible to think about all those daily stresses like, will I be able get my story in by deadline, or how many views will our website get this month, or even will that guy I like ever text me back?
All of those little stresses vanish among the sun and the trees, and your mind can’t help but focus entirely on what’s right in front of you — little pods of future chocolate bars.
Then, for a second, your little worries flash across your mind, and you realize the secret to life is actually right in front of you — when life gives you cocoa beans, make chocolate.
It’s a lesson I had to go all the way to Ecuador to truly understand.