From coca to cocoa, Colombia’s growing chocolate industry is another example of a country on the move. Over the past twenty years, Colombia has made incredible strides to rid itself of its unsavory past. Medellín, Pablo Escobar’s former stomping grounds, was named the Most Innovative City in 2012 and has become a tech hub in Latin America. The government has reached a peace agreement with the FARC, ending Latin America’s longest armed conflict.
In a continued effort to rejuvenate economic growth in the country and reduce the influence of drugs and paramilitary forces, there has been a renewed focus to change over coca plants to cacao and provide farmers with a new source of income. And as the chocolate industry is beginning to pivot towards finer cacao and cacao grown in Latin America, Colombia with its sound business environment and government support is poised to soar.
Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of visiting Distrito Chocolate en el barrio de Las Aguas. A specialty chocolate drink shop, it specializes in chocolate grown in Colombia. What really triggered me is the layout reminded me of Taza Factory and the Taza Chocolate bar bringing back memories of joy, cacao nibs, and brightly colored pods.
Overwhelmed, I dove into choco-chatter with the lady at the counter and I secretly wished I had some Taza in my backpocket to share with her. She set a plat of nibs down on my table to munch on while I mulled over the menu. The nibs themselves were incredible. Perhaps I had become so used to the Domincan Republic based nibs at Taza that I was used to the flavors, but here I was stunned and overloaded with the variety of flavors. First came café, then more fruity flavors – cherry, red fruits. a little bit of citrus, after a couple more bites I tasted a strong bitter taste and then in the end some vegetal notes. Cacao in all its forms is so unique!
There were so many new varieties of chocolate I wanted to taste. The cacao came from all around Colombia, not just the southern part close to Ecuador (also a large cocoa producing country). Regions I dream to travel: Tumaco, Putumayo, Meta, etc. And in all different percentages – 42%, 65%, 72%, 74%. A mini treasure trove before my eyes. Luckily they came in a variety of sizes, some just perfect for an extended sampling. Although I love chocolate, I truly don’t need multiple bars of one flavor.
In the end, I settled on two via a recommendations from the barista (the first two bars in the bottom middle photo). Tibitó – winner of the 2016 national concurso de chocolate in Colombia – 70% cacao, origen Tumaco. And Cacao Hunters Perla Negra 74% Heirloom cacao also from the region of Tumaco. I probably should have picked more diverse chocolates but I didn’t realize Perla Negra was also from Tumaco. Despite being from the region, they still have different characteristics. That just gives me an excuse to get more chocolate!
I never knew I could like another chocolate after Taza. But this 70% cacao from Tumaco has me sold on the beauty of Colombian chocolate. A pretty thick bar, the smooth texture is filled with rich flavor and densely packed cacao. But when you bite into it, the chocolate breaks clean – a sign of good tempering techniques. It takes a bit of time to melt, but when it does it rests on your tongue and allows the flavors to seep in. It begins with a standard chocolate flavor but leaves notes of flowers and a bit of acidity like a nice crisp white wine. The after taste presents a bit of mint. I could see this chocolate paired nicely with a light-medium bodied red wine – a little bit past Pinot Noir- and/or a neutral soft white cheese – maybe even a Camembert.
The packaging on this one really did it for me. The design on the front is traced in gold and the square package opens up like a CD case to reveal a silver covered chocolate square inside. The inner cover reveals an Afro-indigenous woman holding two cacao pods and a small blurb about the luscious green jungle area of the Tumaco, noted as “The Pearl of the Pacific.” Behind the chocolate is a statement from the Tumaqueño people celebrating their indigenous and African ancestors. The thinner chocolate bar snaps pretty easily and bright spicy flavors are immediately present. Very different to the Tibitó from earlier. If you hold the chocolate a bit longer, a slight citrus flavor becomes present and even a small hint of caramel or nuts. This wine would go nicely with a full-bodied white wine and some goat
Although I am a fan of thicker chocolate bars, the forthright flavors and deeper connection to the people growing the cacao (and especially their Afro heritage) are leaning me toward preferring the Perla Negra brand.
Why is Afro heritage so important in cacao? Read on!