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Within half hectare of archaeological remains, between the rivers Valladolid, Palanda and Chinchipe, the Mayo Chinchipe-Marañón culture cultivated one of the sweetest agricultural treasures of humanity around 5,300 BC: cacao, the main ingredient for chocolate.
Ecuador, the country in the middle of the World, is proud to have on his ancestry the origin of cacao. A production that began its distribution through commercial routes that reached southern countries like Peru and all the way up to Central America and México.
We walk through a quite modest archaeological site, its ruins are small and almost imperceptible, but its value gains strength as we walk through the site. A local guide describes the site which is divided in two representative spaces. The first one is a 40-meter-diameter ceremonial plaza that when it’s seen from a strategic point has the shape of a vessel with a handle.
History begins to take shape as we understand each trace the ancient cultures left. We reach the second space with a spiral shape. So our mind spirals back in time to the day when ancient cultures venerated the snake, the eagle and the jaguar as gods. We can see them in vessels found in the hidden tombs under the spiral structure, the burial site for the highest authorities of the Mayo Chinchipe.
But not only vessels, archeologists found other offerings and objects among them, the most important one for cacao’s history: a set of bottles with remains of cocoa starch. In 2007, through a Franco-Ecuadorian investigation, archeologists determined these remains of cocoa were the oldest ever found thus the axis of production was right in the center of the world, in Ecuador.
Back in the old days, the Yachak (kichwa name for the wise) was the one who led the ceremonies and in it a sacred drink was consumed based on the fermentation of the cacao pulp. “Theobroma cacao” is the Latin name for this marvelous product and it means “food of the gods”, its name was given by Carl Linnaeus, in the eighteenth century, reassuring that this food has been of great value for centuries.
“This treasure the country has encourages me to work with it, cacao is native to Palanda and so dearest to me. It has allowed me to eat and share this delight with other colleagues. Cocoa and its history travels from my garden to the World. I didn’t thought that I could meet so many friends and so many people willing to talk and learn about the origins of cacao”, says Ángel Maldonado, a cacao producer from Palanda.
Ángel has dedicated half-century of his life to work with cacao. His father came from Los ríos and his mother from Cuenca, he recalls, and he blames on them its love for cacao since he was only eight years old. His father conveyed the value of this sacred fruit, which is currently a fundamental part of the Maldonado family incomes. They traditionally grow and grind the seeds to distribute them to different places.
Two thousand centenary trees are part of Ángel’s crops, a familiar plantation that demands daily work to avoid diseases and plagues. It’s a non stop hard work, he insists.
“We now know that cacao origins are set in this region and we have very old plants and seeds. I feel honored to have the original cacao seeds. For 22 years, I dedicated myself to plant few plants and I was glad to see them thrive. My father liked cacao a lot and so it is my heritage”, says Ángel as he grinds the seeds which later will turn into a delicious cup of chocolate, the same one that I savored while the sun began hiding behind the mountains of Zamora Chinchipe, painting the sky in orange as if wanting to be noticed while our attention was focused on o cup full of a sacred meal: hot chocolate.
His love for his wife led him to Palanda and the family dream is to make chocolate. He needs bigger mill, he says, to provide a finest pasta. His wife and daughter help Ángel to select the best seeds. On weekends and fair days they share the flavor of fine cacao, authentic from Palanda.
“Cacao holds a beautiful value, it is a golden bean that requires hard work from bean to bar, but in the end it is rewarding because I know it is a unique cocoa, the best cocoa”, Ángel smiles.
Ecuador is rewriting the history of cocoa since the latests discoveries in 2007 and so it adds a milestone to our history, one that makes us proud. The golden bean germinated in Ecuadorian lands long, long ago and since then we’ve been sending sweetness to the World.