In this blog’s first interview, we spoke with Servio Pachard, a fourth-generation Ecuadorian cacao grower. Now we speak with Vicente Norero, a fourth-generation Ecuadorian chocolate maker. Vicente’s great-grandfather emigrated from Italy to Ecuador in 1889, during the heyday of Ecuadorian cacao, before the outbreak of Witch’s Broom Disease. Vicente’s great-grandfather eventually founded one of the first chocolate companies in Ecuador, and this business has–in one way or another, remained within the family ever since. When it came Vicente’s turn to carry the torch, he took it in a new direction. He started his career managing a cacao farm, which eventually led to him becoming a specialist in cacao fermentation methods of cacao under the brand name Camino Verde. Some of the best chocolate makers in the world use cacao from Camino Verde, including Dandelion, Fruition, and Ritual–to name just a few. But Vicente didn’t stop there. He took his work in this field one step further and fulfilled the childhood dream of opening up his own chocolate factory. Latiali, as it’s called, is located in Guayaquil–a city that was built from Ecuadorian cacao.
Carl and I recently had the honor and the pleasure of working hand-in-hand with Vicente to produce our El Niño Harvest 2016 edition of To’ak Chocolate. Very quickly in the midst of this process, Carl and I discovered in Vicente, and Vicente discovered in us, kindred spirits. One thing the three of us have in common—at least when it comes to making chocolate—is a penchant for perfectionism bordering on obsessive compulsion. All work aside, Vicente is also a fascinating character and I consider him a friend. During a break during production in his factory one day, Carl and I sat down with Vicente and interviewed him for this blog, which has been translated into English below.
JT: When did the tradition of chocolate begin in your family?
VN: My great-grandfather went to Ecuador in 1889. His cousin went there first and wrote a letter to my great-father telling him that he had just moved to this country in South America called Ecuador. He said it was very beautiful, still full of forest and wild animals. He was specifically talking about the area that today we know as Urdesa, by Guayaquil. He told my great-grandfather that there were a fair number of Italian and German immigrants here and that it was a nice place to come and visit. He said they were starting a pasta business and they were also thinking about entering into the world of cocoa and chocolate, because they had discovered that in Ecuador there was a type of cacao that had a different flavor. So out of a mixture of curiosity and adventure, my great-grandfather decided to come to Ecuador and began to work. Like a good Italian, he initially started producing pasta, but after he tasted Ecuadorian cacao, he ventured into the world of chocolate.
JT: How old was he when he arrived?
VN: (laughs) I’m sorry but I do not know. I just know that he was a young man when he first came.
JT: Was that during the period of Ecuador’s famous “Cacao Boom”?
VN: Yes it was, but that wasn’t why he came. I think it was more in the spirit of looking for new opportunities. Remember, the world was entering a new era then, people were getting curious about other parts of the world and it was getting easier to travel long distances. Before then, it was almost impossible to travel inter-continentally. By that point, it was at least possible for someone from Italy to Ecuador safely. So he decided to move, all the way from Genoa. Remember, historically the Genoese have always been seamen—the most famous of which was Christopher Columbus. But they were always curious and trying to get to places like India, which is ultimately what brought them to the Americas. So you can say it’s a Genovese trait. And when a family member sends you a message, even though they’re on the other side of the world, you at least have to hear them out. This is what my great-grandfather did. He heard him out, and then he actually went there.
JT: What was the role of your grandfather in this tradition?
VN: Well, it was really my great-grandfather that was the chocolatier. He got into the industry in 1928 and founded El Universal. El Universal was a chocolate company that started to make waves in the world of chocolate right at a time when Ecuadorian cacao was establishing itself as a global sensation. Then his son—my grandfather—grew up to became an important politician in Ecuador. He was the mayor of Guayaquil and also the Ecuadorian ambassador to Italy. He also played a big role in opening borders and promoting international commerce, which was important. Because in the chocolate industry you have two parts: the production, of course, but also the business of accessing markets. My grandfather was focused on that side of things, he had a vision for Ecuador and for the industry. That’s what my father was born into, but my father was more involved in the administrative part. He was also interested in cacao, and bought cacao haciendas for the family. But he wasn’t as interested in the agricultural side of the work. He liked seeing how the chocolate was made, getting involved in the production, making sure the process was meticulous. He was in charge of managing the chocolate factory. He was very methodical, he followed the recipes to the letter and made sure everything was done with precision.
JT: And what about you? How did you get involved in chocolate?
VN: I grew up in int. It’s where I came from. I remember running around the machines and playing in the factory, when I was like eight-years-old. I would also just walk around and explore it, to learn about it—even as a kid. At age fourteen I started to managing some of the machines, and then when I was about seventeen-years-old they locked me in the laboratory to do quality-control for cacao. Around that time we had already sold most of our cacao farms, and we instead focused on buying cacao from other producers. When I went to university, I specialized in industrial production methods of chocolate liquor [cacao mass that is the precursor to finished chocolate] and cacao butter, and I also studied the fermentation process of roasted cacao and all of the corresponding processes.
JT: And then Camino Verde…this is a brand that you started?
VN: Yes, I started Camino Verde more or less…if I remember correctly, I think about 12 years ago. There was an abandoned hacienda which I had the opportunity to manage. I say abandoned because previously it had not been managed well for a long time. So I fixed it up and invented the name Camino Verde with my wife Alicia. We came up with that name because every time I drove to the various cacao plantations I noticed that the roads—to places like Guayas, Manabí, Los Ríos—the land along the roads were always green, and the when you closer to the cacao farms the roads were even greener still, and that’s how the name Camino Verde was born. More than a brand, Camino Verde is really a system of cacao farm management, which entails everything from water and soil management, all the jobs from proper fertilization and harvest all the way to post-harvest of the cacao beans. It’s a very strict process, especially the post-harvest process, which is an area I believe we were pioneers in Ecuador, at least in terms of a more managed use of microorganisms in the process. Little by little we used all this knowledge to get back into the chocolate-making industry, which was already in my blood. It’s funny, I initially I tried to do something different, but what’s in your blood is very difficult to deny—I just had to go back into chocolate.
JT: You don’t have to tell us all your secrets about fermentation, but tell me a little about how you manage microorganisms in this process and the benefits are.
VN: When I first started fermenting cacao, I asked other people how they fermented their cacao. It was a simple question: How do you ferment your cacao? People would tell me three days or four days or five days…sometimes up to seven days. Some people would tell me they fermented their cacao in sweatboxes, others in sacks, others in plastic, others in glass, and others under banana plants. But I found that with all of these existing methods, nobody had found a way to lower the acidity in certain strains of cacao. I found this very interesting, but at first couldn’t find a technical solution. One thing I’ve learned in life is that one has to go back to the origins to be able to understand how to move forward. I think one of the problems today is that many young people have stopped reading or looking back in order to get ahead. So I asked myself: so who knows the most about fermentation, where does the fermentation process come from? Obviously the answer was people who make beer and wine. These were the immediate answers that came to mind, and fortunately I have some family who grow grapes for wine back in Italy. When time I was talking to one of them about how they ferment wine, and he reminded me of the famous scientist Pascal, who is the main people who ushered in our present-day knowledge about microorganisms. When I was a student, I always kind of liked biology and chemistry, so I thought: good, let’s start trying to understand the why behind fermentation. Then I began to research and analyze and conduct some experiments on my own, and then learned from the results. When people talk about cacao fermentation, you often hear people talking in the context time—number of days—and temperatures. So we started to draw a system based on temperature curves, crystallization of sugars, and different families of microorganisms that allow you to exert more control over what is exactly happening in the fermentation. If you control your fermentation system, the cacao itself no longer leads you to how the cacao itself wants to taste; instead, you lead the cacao to the taste you want to achieve in the final product. Understanding how different communities of microorganisms during fermentation ultimately influence the chocolate is the key. That’s what we focus on.
JT: As we talk right now about cacao post-harvest methods, we’re actually sitting in your chocolate factory. When did you decide to make the leap from managing cacao to producing chocolate?
VN: Ever since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to run my own chocolate factory. I literally dreamed of running a chocolate factory. And this particular factory was possible thanks to other shareholders who are helping me fulfill this dream. I have to give a lot of credit for the existence of this factory to Alicia Encalada de Norero, my wife. She supported me at every phase of this process, and I really can’t take any credit for this factory without giving more credit to her. She really is an important part of this. The other part is simply a love for all things cacao and chocolate. It’s passion that is the key. That’s what ultimately decides success or failure. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, I simply had to wait for the chance to do. This is a slow, difficult, complicated task. Dreams are built little by little every single day, and not every day is sunny.
JT: How do you see Ecuadorian chocolate evolve over the course of the next 5, 10, 20 years, from the point of view of Ecuador as a chocolate producer?
VN: Well, first I would say that in Latin America in general, sadly we’re seeing that fino y de aroma cacao is slowly disappearing due to the entry of CCN-51 and other high-yield cacao clones, and I think that many Latin American countries are going to lose a lot of their best cacao trees in the coming years. Ecuador has somewhat of an advantage, because recently the government here has realized that the quality of Nacional cacao in Ecuador is such an important differentiator with the rest of the cacao world, and therefore it’s worth investing in. Ecuador has, to some extent, put a stop to the rapid destruction of Nacional cacao, and some of the older plantations are starting to be revived. Obviously there is still a good amount of CCN-51 in Ecuador, and I totally understand this—they’re very productive. If you’re a farmer, sometimes it’s not fun to keep cultivating a variety like Nacional that is traditionally very unproductive. That becomes a financial and economic issue. I don’t want to say that you can’t make good chocolate with CCN-51. I think you can make good chocolate with it, but a special chocolate like you guys [To’ak] make can only be made with Nacional cacao. And here are two keys to doing that. One thing is fermentation, which is another thing many cacao producers and chocolate makers still don’t pay enough attention to. The other issue is a generational one. Young people are increasingly focused on computers, on things that keep them from going out in the field and getting dirt under their nails. So this is another issue that needs to be addressed, if Ecuador wants to continue to be the global leader in cacao—we need the young generation to step and play their role in that. But I do think that we can overcome these challenges. I do believe that Ecuador will continue to be recognized as the one country in the world with a truly unique cacao. I also believe that Ecuador, in the future, will not only produce good cacao, but also good chocolate—as the three of us can see by the chocolate we’re making together. We’re are a small group in this country who wants to be different and do things differently than the easy way, and oftentimes this different way is hard, because it costs money, it costs time, and it just isn’t easy. The kind of work we do isn’t standardized—it requires a human touch and also human creativity. This is the kind of attitude we need in Ecuador among those who enter into this industry, to not sacrifice quality and also to love what we’re making. In my opinion, tasting chocolate is something very special, very personal—it’s a moment that you share with your children, or a friend, or your wife or husband, or sometimes even just alone. It’s something you enjoy just as you would a good wine. And part of the pleasure is also in the story that goes into it. Because you get to imagine the beautiful places in this country where cacao is grown, these mountains and precious valleys, the people behind the chocolate, the care and love that is put into it—you feel it in the taste. Maybe your sitting in front of a computer in the middle of a concrete jungle in real life, but for a few minutes you are transported to the middle of a real jungle, green and mountainous, with all the smells…and that’s what makes it worth it.