Artisanal Chocolate Revives the Lost Taste of Heirloom Cacao
To’ak Chocolate is made of rare Ecuadorian cacao beans whose genetic lineage is over 5,000 years old
It’s known as the world’s most expensive bar of chocolate. And if you read the romantic story of its origins, you’ll see why the Ecuador-based To’ak Chocolate Company commands this position.
There’s no gold dust or intergalactic matter sprinkled inside the company’s most decadent bars. We’re talking pure, organic, fair-trade, artisanal chocolate made from over 100-year-old cacao trees.
The story starts in 2006 in the beautiful valley of Piedra de Plata in Ecuador, when a young man from Chicago, Jerry Toth, fell in love with the ancient taste of chocolate and teamed up with a young Austrian branding expert, Carl Schweizer, to elevate chocolate to its storied historical origins.
Toth was working in Ecuador as a rainforest conservationist and planting cacao trees to promote reforestation. Then, one day, he tasted chocolate the way it had been traditionally consumed down the centuries, and that changed everything.
“I grew up outside Chicago, and my relationship with chocolate was not very different from most kids’ relationship—something that was in candy bars. Mars, Snickers, Twix. That morning, drinking cacao on the reserve with local families changed my perception of chocolate forever. I realized I had been eating chocolate wrong my whole life. Sometimes you look back at the clothes or haircut you had as a child and you wonder… I felt like that about chocolate.”
How to best enjoy artisanal chocolate
So how is chocolate consumed the traditional way? Not as a bar, but as a beverage. Toth describes how a few old-timers in Manabi still go through the painstaking process of preparing their chocolate drink. After the cacao bean is harvested, it goes straight to the drying stage without any fermentation. The beans are roasted in a big pot over a fire, de-husked by hand, ground and cooked into a solid mass of 100 percent chocolate.
“Once it cools, you have big balls of solid cacao,” says Toth. “When they have to eat it, they use a knife or cheese grater to grate flakes into water or milk and add something to sweeten it up. So it’s like a fudge.”
It was a fine, complex taste with floral notes like he had never tasted before. Good chocolate became an obsession, and along with it a passion for organic cocoa farming. Toth and Schweizer were clear that their mission was all-encompassing—one that involved the local farmers, the local environment, and chocolate’s luxurious past.
“The aroma of Ecuador cacao is what made it famous in the 1800s. It’s hands down the most aromatic cacao aroma—one of the most subtle, fun, interesting, nuanced aromas you can explore.”
A game-changing discovery
What proved to be the real game-changer was the discovery in 2009 of the 5,300-year-old Nacional species of cacao tree, which was widely thought to be extinct. When Toth and his team found a whole grove of these over-100-year-old trees in the Piedra de Plata valley, it was an incredible moment. Here was the raw material—heirloom cacao beans—they needed for their dream to come true. It crystallized their mission: to establish a sustainable luxury chocolate company that also preserved the rarest and most coveted cacao variety on earth.
In 2013, they set up To’ak Chocolate. The third key member in the team is Servio Pachard, a fourth-generation Ecuadorian cacao grower and harvest master, on whose farm the cacao is processed.
Branded as the “most expensive chocolate in the world,” To’ak (pronounced toe-ahk) gets its name from pairing the ancient Ecuadorian words for “earth” and “tree.” It’s made from cacao sourced from these 100 percent pure Nacional cacao trees. And that’s what makes these bars so valuable: They’re made from the oldest and rarest variety of cacao on earth.
The whole process from bean to bar takes two years. It starts with farmers harvesting the cacao by hand, using machetes to slice the pod open and extract the beans from the fleshy pulp inside. The whitish beans are transferred to large bins that are covered with banana leaves and left to ferment for up to five days to reduce bitterness.
The next stage involves sun-drying the beans for at least two weeks. Then comes the waiting stage. The beans have to be stored for between six months and a year in order to stabilize the cacao. Only then are they ready to be roasted—which is when they acquire the rich aroma they’re known for. After roasting, the outer shells are removed and the beans are ground into a paste that goes into the making of the bar.
All these steps are manually executed and take place in the valley itself. The final flourish is the hand-peeled bean, which is placed like a little trophy in the centre of each of the company’s Origin bars.
It’s hardly surprising that the company produces only a few hundred bars a year. “People forget that chocolate was considered sacred for thousands of years,” says Toth. “It was a delicacy reserved for kings, priests, and warriors, and in some cultures it was even used as currency. We wanted to restore chocolate to its former glory and treat it like a fine aged wine or whiskey.”
The boxes the Origin bars are packed in are also special. They’re handcrafted from Spanish elm and come with a tiny bamboo utensil.
“You’re not going to chug an expensive glass of wine, you’re going to inspect the colour, put your nose in the glass, and then savour a mouthful,” says Toth. “In the case of prized chocolate, too, the aroma is very special. The aroma of Ecuador cacao is what made it famous in the 1800s. It’s hands down the most aromatic cacao aroma—one of the most subtle, fun, interesting, nuanced aromas you can explore. Nothing should interfere with the smell, which is why we have special bamboo utensils to pick up a piece of chocolate instead of using your hands.”
Now, in these COVID times, the utensils are needed like never before. “All that hand sanitizer will ruin it or mask the smell,” says Toth. “COVID has not been good for smelling chocolate.”
From bean to bar: A sustainable journey
To’ak has brought great attention to the Piedra de Plata region. “The farmers here have become famous,” Toth says with a laugh. “They have received visits from the country’s vice president, National Geographic shot a TV program, reporters from New York Times have interviewed them, the BBC is showing pictures of them.”
Alongside the glamour, the grassroots work of conservation continues every day. The company’s conservation strategy is two-pronged: to save the existing ancient Nacional cacao trees from disease and extinction and plant new seedlings to build a “genetic bank” in the protected forest preserve that Toth helped create. This work, says Toth, is what really matters to him.
In fact, the flashy tag of “most expensive chocolate in the world” has become a bit like the tin can tied to the cat’s tail.
“It was useful at the very beginning when it got us attention,” says Toth, “but it has turned out to be the type of attention that we didn’t really want. Over the last five years, it’s been a battle to prove that there’s a lot more to us than our price—our approach, our techniques, the way we grade out chocolate, the craftsmanship of the packaging and so on. Without focusing on these aspects, the ‘expensive’ thing is an empty claim. If it were up to us, we would rather be called the world’s most valuable chocolate.”