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Langley chocolatier searches for secrets in Ecuador

Mona Newbauer stands by a cacao tree (theobroma cacao) with ripe cacao pods hanging from the trunk of the tree. Unlike other fruit, cacao grows directly from the trunk and branches of the trees. - Photo courtesy of Mona Newbauer
Mona Newbauer stands by a cacao tree (theobroma cacao) with ripe cacao pods hanging from the trunk of the tree. Unlike other fruit, cacao grows directly from the trunk and branches of the trees.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Mona Newbauer

As soon as she found herself walking through a cacao plantation in Ecuador, Mona Newbauer’s passion was renewed.

Newbauer, owner of Sweet Mona’s Chocolate Boutique in Langley, has been making chocolate for about 10 years and has been selling it out of her small shop on Second Street for five. But it wasn’t until the trip in May, when she traveled to South America with husband Tony Newbauer to see the fields that produced the beans, that her purpose became clear.

“I realized that this is what I do. Chocolate, the shop. Fate has decided this is what I do,” Newbauer said.

So when their plans to visit Egypt for her 50th birthday fell through due to that country’s civil revolution, Mona told Tony if they were going somewhere it was going to have to mean something.

“I decided I wanted to see the cacao plantations and I wanted a plan,” she said.

The couple was used to spontaneous travel, but Newbauer told her husband (who’s in charge of booking their travel) that she wanted this trip to have a purpose; she wanted to discover things about the plant that provides her livelihood.

Newbauer posted a request on LinkedIn and received a reply from a chocolatier in Quito, Ecuador. He recommended the Newbauers visit Hacienda Limón, a cacao plantation near Quevedo owned by Samuel Von Rutte, a former Nestle employee from Switzerland.

“Samuel and his wife welcomed us. He told us all about how the cacao is grown and about the two basic types: Nacional and CCN51, a hybrid,” Newbauer said.

The Nacional, they learned, produced what is called a “fine flavored” cacao bean, but is harder to grow than the good, but not as highly rated, hybrid.

There is a movement throughout the chocolate industry to salvage the Nacional Cacao, with its rare complex flavors of fruit, flora, nut and coffee, Newbauer said. Currently, only 3 percent of the cacao grown is of the Nacional type.

Newbauer said there were a lot of things she learned about her favorite ingredient while she was south of the border. For instance, she learned that the cacao plant can grow anywhere that is within zero to 20 degrees north or south of the equator. It is the best climate for the plant.

“It was also the first time I got to see the cacao grow on a tree,” she said.

“It grows in pods all different colors — orange, yellow, purple, green, red — and inside is the bean.”

Preparing beans for chocolate is similar to how much preparation goes into making wine or coffee, Newbauer said.

The cacao fruits are opened and the pulp and seeds are transferred to larger containers. This is performed by farmers, plantation workers, or in large cocoa factories where it can be done by machines. The cacao beans are later transferred to wooden crates or baskets with banana leaves in between and on top to enable an optimal fermentation. The duration of the fermentation depends on the variety and lasts from two to seven days. The length of the fermentation also affects the aroma, so if well-developed aroma is wanted the beans are fermented for a longer time. The beans are dried and raked, sorted to size, bagged and then exported.

Newbauer’s eyes were opened to other aspects of the industry, as well.

If you want the best chocolate in the world, it helps to be a cacao plant farmer, she discovered.

“The people who are farming the chocolate get the best-rated beans,” Newbauer said.

“Even the best chocolatiers in the world don’t get the best-rated beans, though the beans are still very good.”

It seems the farmers deserve the best chocolate.

The Newbauers and their traveling companions traveled to the central part of the country to see some family plantations in Tena, in the Amazon rain forest. One plantation was worked by a farmer and his entire family, who were poor by American standards, but who, she said, looked very happy. The family made them a meal with chicken, which was a rare treat for the family and not something they can afford to eat often.

“I fell in love with the country and the people,” Newbauer said, “I didn’t want to leave Ecuador.”

This farmer worked for the Killari cooperative, a self-governed coalition of Amazon artists and organic cocoa producers, which includes more than

850 families. Kallari has created a sustainable income so the people of the region can fulfill their basic family needs without logging the rain forests or selling their land.

Ten years ago, middlemen kept the profits from the plantations for themselves and set low prices for cocoa beans, but now the communities sell their product directly as a single unit and negotiate prices. They produce and sell gourmet, organic dark chocolate bars.

The Newbauers visited a second plantation in the Amazon and were impressed by the farmer’s pride.

“He carefully opened the pod, delicately took out the seeds; it was so evident how much pride he took in his plants,” Newbauer said.

“It was amazing to me how much work goes into making cacao.”

The people also produce other crops, Newbauer said, such as coffee, vanilla, oranges and yucca.

But the cocoa, she said, is where they can make most of their money.

This was an eye-opening experience for the Langley chocolatier, who had never even seen a cacao plant, and never imagined these faraway families were some of the people who allowed her to make her treats.

“Because of my trip to Ecuador, I have a renewed passion for chocolate and I’m working to make my business more profitable.”

To that end, Newbauer tries to introduce something new at Sweet Mona’s each summer, including chocolate fondue, breakfast waffles and this summer’s new chocolate tasting bar. The bar showcases couverture (covering) chocolate from around the world — Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela — and features Criolo, Trinitario, Forestero and Nacional beans, for a total of 15 varieties of origin chocolate.

Newbauer said that she came away with a lot from Ecuador, especially a new appreciation for the growers and what the cacao plant gives the world.

“Scientists can say what they want, but tasting chocolate is a personal, sensorial experience that only you can decide if you enjoy it or not. No one but you knows what a kind of chocolate tastes like to you — it’s your own, no one else’s,” she said.

Newbauer is already planning her next trip to Ecuador in 2012. She is opening the trip to others who might be interested to join a tour. Email her at mona@sweetmonas.com.

Open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sweet Mona’s chocolate boutique is located at 138 Second St. in Langley. Visit www.SweetMonas.com, or call 221-2728 for more info.

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