Chocolate History: southern Ecuador is the birthplace

José de Saeger, CEO of Del Páramo Chocolate, Vilcabamba, Ecuador displaying his products
at Loja's The Encuentro Del Café VI, 2018 coffee growers exposition. (Photo: Nathaly Poma)

The Encuentro Del Café VI 2018 coffee grower's expo in Loja, Ecuador, offered a wealth of interesting information, and it wasn't all just about coffee.  José de Saeger, a Belgian with a shop in Vilcabamba, Loja province, has been making chocolate from locally sourced cacao powder for over a decade.  José's chocolate brand "Del Páramo," puts out a ton of chocolate every day, he claims, using several types of Ecuadorian cocoa.  Part of his holdings are 40 hectares of cacao fruit-bearing (theobroma) trees or cacao plants in Palanda Canton, in the Amazonian province of Zamora-Chinchipe, southern Ecuador. 

A very gregarious bi-lingual representative of his company, José presented a wide variety of tempting hand-made gourmet chocolates, including several grades of dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate.  Daily consumption of dark chocolate has myriad health benefits according to the entrepreneur.  He says his milk chocolate is a nod to traditional chocolate tastes, but there is no way to surpass the types made in Europe.  He also offers white chocolate because of the demand for it, but say's it isn't really chocolate.  We sampled the truffles, which were excellent, and a number of his bar chocolates with ingredients like acai berries, and one with dried lime zest pared with black pepper.  José also has 100% dark chocolate bars.  Trying those was a first for us.   
You would think that his chocolate farm and factory, plus a retail store in Vilca's shopping district, would keep José very busy.  However, if you speak with him for more than a few minutes, his real passion emerges.  José has the desire to investigate and document evidence of the true origin of Ecuadorian cacao.  This is what motivates him, in his own words, to work with enthusiasm and desire to innovate with this product whose origin he believes is in his home of Zamora.

José's enthusiasm for chocolate history begins with the work of Ecuadorian archaeologist Francisco Valdez.  Valdez, along with his own Ecuadorian team from INIAP (Instituto Nacional Autónomo de Investigaciones Agropecuarias) and French archaeologists from CIRAD (Centre de Cooperation Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Developpement) have found evidence of Ecuador's chocolate primacy.

Until this international teams' investigation, the origin of cacao was thought to be Guatemala, in Mesoamerica.  The prior discovery was made in 1987 by the Hershey Company's research department which found theobromine, a bitter alkaloid of the cacao plant, when scraping pottery from that area dated at about 600 B.C.E.

The challenge to the Mesoamerican primacy of chocolate by Valdez and his investigators comes from a Santa Ana-La Florida, pre-Columbian site near the town of Palanda in Zamora Chinchipe (2 hours south of Vilcabamba). At 3,040 foot elevation in Andes, the site was found by a French-Ecuadorian team while excavating domestic and burial sites in the Mayo-Chinchipe River, a tributary of Peru’s Maranon River.

Stone mortar for grinding chocolate carved in the shape of a cocoa seed pod. 
Photo: Primeras Sociedades de la Alta Amazonía: 
La cultura mayo Chinchipe-Marañón
Francisco Valdez
The exciting discovery (also in Zarillo, 2012) found that transitional cloud forest people throughout the Ceja de Montana (eyebrow of the mountain region) left several vessels from 3500-3350 BCE, with one pottery container decorated as a stylized cacao “kakawa” pod.  These artifacts tested positive for cacao used for ceremonial drinks approximately 2500 years earlier than Mesoamerica.

Visit José's chocolate shop on Diego Vaca de Vega street in Vilcabamba.  José will be happy to discuss Dr. Valdez's findings with you.  José says he will also be at this year's Barcamoros coffee fair scheduled for Friday 28 and Saturday 29 of September in the canton of Palanda, southern Ecuador, where each year, buyers from Germany, Canada, Colombia and the United States come to buy the local coffee crop.  The Coffee Tour will be reporting from Bracamoros in the Amazon next week.   


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