Two teaspoons of brown sugar sweeten the cocoa brew prepared by the Sandoval family. The table is served with hot chocolate mugs and cassava tortillas, all made with food harvested in El Paraíso, a farm located in Pomona, under an hour’s drive south of Puyo.
Roberto is the patriarch. Together with his granddaughters, he prepares the reason we’ve come all this way: Amazonian chocolate. If something abounds in these lands, it is cocoa — although the family also grows bananas, cassava and sigta, a local fruit similar to a pommegranate that boasts medicinal properties.
Cacao is a surprising fruit. At first sight, it has nothing to do with the end product of chocolate at all. Split a cacao in half and you’ll find a white interior pulp, which is sweet and refreshing like any tropical fruit. That would be enough for many people. But the real secret is what lies buried within the white pulp, the seeds. And that is the secret to chocolate, you have dig deeper… and work. Though, for Roberto, the explanation is simple: “Eat the pulp first and then remove what’s good from the seed to toast it.”
The seeds are placed over a high heat, in a large bronze bowl. Once these are toasted brown, we peel off the dried outer shell. The process is enjoyed as a family, at a large table next to the dining room, with a parrot for company. Roberto prepares the mill for the seeds his granddaughters are deftly peeling.
One by one, the cacao is placed in the metal machine. The aroma envelops the room, as natural as the place where it was grown. The small strips that are pushed out of the mill will be used to make different products such as chocolate bars, tea, even wine. The latter has a white, almost transparent color. It smells sweet but the flavor is strong, a wonderful contrast.
Johnatan, Roberto’s son, calls us to the dining room. In the kitchen, a huge bowl filled with cassava dough is ready for us to make tortillas. “We began with this venture five years’ ago and we’re thankful it’s gone so well,” he explains as he places pitchers on the table. One contains a rich hot chocolate and the other cacao tea, which is a bit bitter though Johnatan suggests sweetening it. The tortillas are stuffed with a delicious cheese that melts in your mouth; all the products are produced right here, by the Sandoval family.
A short walk through the varied plantation at El Paraíso concludes our visit. The place is full of peace. Jungle creatures, especially birds and butterflies, accompany us. The sun sets to the west through the branches and leaves, painting everything in gold: the cocoa fields, the houses, the people and everything that makes up this small Amazonian farm, that truly lives up to its name.