A year ago, I found myself on an unexpected detour through Bolivia, the too-brief highlight of months of travel. Wildly beautiful, compelling and varied, Bolivia dazzled me from Tupiza to Lake Titicaca. But my detour didn’t route me through Amazonian Alto Beni to discover its cacao, so I just had to hunt down a few Bolivian bars upon my return to the States.
My hunt yielded interesting fruit, literally: turns out some Bolivian cacao is wild, exceptionally unusual these days. In fact, most had believed no wild cacao remained, that cacao had been fully domesticated, but the mighty Amazon proved that theory wrong with Bolivia’s wild cacao, dubbed Cru Sauvage. After researching the kind of fascinating cocoa-lore that compels me to punch my passport, I couldn’t wait to bite into the wild child or four I’d uncovered once on tamer terrain.
EL CEIBO 75% Fine Dark Chocolate: This one’s the domesticated bar of the bunch, with cultivated cacao from Alto Beni. (El Ceibo’s limited edition Heritage bar does use wild cacao, and I’d recommend you snap it up if you see it.) Still, this is the sole bar of my US finds produced from tree to bar in Bolivia–under the tutelage of none other than Chloe Doutre-Roussel–and it’s clear this co-operative-driven maker knows what to do with its exceptional cacao.
Smell: I have to start with smell, since the photo above definitely suggests disappointment. Upon opening the package, I was greeted with such an intoxicatingly beautiful fragrance that I swooned sight unseen. A heady mix of floral, nutty, woody, fruity sweet notes transported me to a pretty forest. I tore open the bar.
Appearance: Well, you see the previously broken bar, the bloom, the pinholes, the marred surface…but given the luscious scent and journey all the way from Bolivia, I was pretty forgiving.
Snap: Very firm and clean, but this makes sense with both the bloom, suggesting a drier bar, and the soy lecithin.
Taste: I’m near euphoric that the aroma was an accurate indicator of taste. First came earthy, woody notes. Maybe tobacco. Soon followed sweet caramel and pleasant floral notes, accompanied by a nice apricot, plum and almond mix. The finish was long and beautifully bitter. Lovely.
Texture: Affected by the bloom, but it still became smooth and creamy, likely a result of a judicious usage of soy lecithin, I concede, despite my distaste for the stuff. I’m already excited to try this bar again in better form.
ORIGINAL BEANS 66% Beni Wild Harvest: Despite creating the sweetest bar of my bunch, conservation-minded Original Beans delivers a bar that stands assertively and attractively amongst its 75% cousins, revealing layers of interesting flavors.
Appearance: Impressive, shiny, virtually unmarred rich milky brown bar with pretty six-gram squares.
Smell: Sweet, freshly fruity, maybe papaya, with rich mocha notes and some toast. What is this, a pleasant breakfast in bed?
Snap: Crisp, clean and easy. Spot on.
Taste: The start is toasty, creamy, caramel-y. It opens into a gorgeous cantaloupe flavor, which then becomes more tart (but only maybe the dried-cranberry tart indicated on the package’s tasting notes). Next comes jasmine, which lingers on the finish, along with a pleasant mildly bitter/tart finish. The progression is really quite the refined journey for beans untamed.
Texture: Given only 24 hours of conching, I’m surprised at the dreamy smooth creaminess of this bar. This seems a brilliant balancing act, with likely just the right amount of supplemental cacao butter lending the creamy texture so that the relatively brief conching might retain these special beans’ diverse flavors. Just a theory about the magic.
DICK TAYLOR 75% Bolivia: Whereas El Ceibo and Original Beans bars present, if I may be so politically incorrect, feminine flavors of flowers, sweet fruits and cream, Dick Taylor‘s Bolivian cacao interpretation reveals a bolder, more masculine energy that satisfies in an entirely different way. None of my research revealed the origin or type of bean beyond simply “Bolivian.”
Appearance: Shiny deep dark brown rococo-patterned bar with insignia wrapped in my favorite, gold foil. Easily the most visually elegant bar of the set. Near flawless.
Smell: Deep earthy aromas. Blackstrap molasses, hot fudge. A friend smelled Chinese black vinegar, and I got some potent acidity, too.
Snap: Firm, crisp and clean; no surprise given the beautifully tempered appearance.
Taste: Espresso and walnut: powerful roasty bitter astringency. Blackstrap molasses. Strongly brewed jasmine tea and woody essences left an assertive astringent finish; reminds me of some 100% bars I’ve had. It’s as satisfying as espresso after a rough night.
Texture: Thick, rich and smooth. Strong but satisfying astringency.
ROGUE Silvestre 75%: Colin Gasko, the prodigy of craft chocolate, delivers, quite simply, a limited-edition wild-bean winner.
Appearance: Rogue‘s trademark simple slab of an espresso-brown bar. Glossy. The few surface blemishes don’t detract. Some small air bubbles trapped inside.
Smell: Ah, the aroma! Like banana nut bread just from the oven, served with rich hot cocoa. I could smell this all day.
Snap: Very firm and crisp. Well tempered.
Taste: Espresso start, followed by walnut and slightly unripe banana flavors–there’s that banana nut bread. Ripe plum and jasmine finish. Deep cocoa base flavor throughout. Flavors reveal themselves quite distinctly yet harmoniously and are just plain delicious and gut-level satisfying.
Texture: Thick, smooth, creamy, slow melt. Moderately astringent finish.
My Bolivian chocolate tasting journey transported me right back to my adventure-packed travels last year. Just as each day in Bolivia brought radically different terrain, from rocky canyons to lush high-altitude lakes, Bolivian cacao in artisan hands offers layers of enticing aromas and flavors to explore. Jasmine and earthy notes seem pervasive, but the diversity of unusual flavors is even more evident as a common theme of this region’s finest cacao.
I admit I’m just as smitten with Bolivian cacao as I was with my brief visit. I’m definitely eager for more of both, and I hope you can find some wild Bolivian exploits–chocolate or otherwise–for yourself.