Gianduja Chocolatier, Jeff Stern’s Ecuador chocolate factory in Quito, is one of those hidden places in Ecuador that is definitely worth the effort to locate. Our search was made easier with Jeff’s precise directions. We found Gianduja’s tiny sign next to a nondescript black metal gate on what seemed like a busy commercial street.
Turning left after walking down a long, inviting garden path, we entered a sparkling clean chocolate factory and were immediately faced with shelves displaying all kinds of dark and delicious temptations.
It was hard to restrain my instant hand-to-mouth impulses, being so close within touch and taste of Jeff’s glistening specimens of chocolaty perfection.
There were handmade truffles, bonbons, macadamia brittle, shiny gold hearts, even heart-shaped chocolate boxes full of chocolates. Heaven!!
Who in his right mind could resist sneaking a nibble? I was giving the naughty thought serious consideration. But before I could grab a bite. . or ten, Jeff wisely whisked us off to show us the inner workings of his chocolateria, leaving me unsatisfied and curious.
The main machine Jeff operates processes 30 kilos of Ecuador chocolate to keep it warm and the machine runs constantly.
He uses 50% sugar/50% chocolate most of the time and the sugar is fondant or invert sugar, not pure white sugar. He also makes a 70% chocolate, which foreigners love, but the locals don’t like the darker, more bitter, chocolate.
Jeff – “You have to temper chocolate to make it “shine and snap,” or it won’t set up properly. To temper, I first heat the chocolate to 50 degrees C., then lower the temperature to 30 degrees C. and add a piece of tempered chocolate.
“The tempered chocolate must have no bloom, but needs the right crystals to “infect” the rest of the chocolate. I keep it moving to spread the tempering throughout the chocolate, a process which takes one-half hour.” (“Bloom” is the whitish covering that can appear on the surface of chocolate that has not been property tempered.)
We watched as Jeff filled a sheet of molds under the warm chocolate stream, then vibrated it and shook out the excess. After the chocolate is firm, he adds the fillings and tops the mold with additional chocolate.
His unique chocolate pieces are decorated with textured sheets hand-applied to the tops or customized with colored cocoa butter designs.
He uses edible organic cocoa butter or a colored spray to color the chocolates. Jeff masterminds the entire process, with only one woman to assist him.
Much of the Ecuador chocolate that Jeff uses in his enchanting creations comes from a 600-hectare farm, owned by a Swiss man who mainly exports his raw beans for 70% chocolate. Jeff’s chocolate is not organic, but it is 100% Ecuadorian chocolate, with pure cocoa butter. While there is some organic chocolate in Ecuador, it is mostly exported.
Although he too exports the majority of his confections, Jeff also has a local Ecuadorian market, mostly molded pieces sold to restaurants, caterers, weddings, corporations or as gifts at Christmas and holidays. He can hand-make 5000 pieces a week in sheets or 2000 pieces molded, at 12 grams each.
Jeff’s chocolate sells retail in the U.S. for $70-100 per lb, or $3 per piece, under the labels of several exclusive chocolatiers. Wholesale, he sells it for $25-30 per lb.
Noticing that we were all salivating in anticipation, Jeff generously let us pick a sweet morsel to sample. In the true spirit of cooperation and with the desire to taste as many flavors as we could, in between moans of pleasure, we all nibbled bites of each other’s chocolates.
My favorites were the raspberry-filled chocolates and the ones with coffee centers. There was also a solid white chocolate cup beautifully decorated with a multicolored striped top. I had hoped our box of chocolates would contain an “El Mexicano,” a bonbon flavored with cinnamon (canella) and chipotle chili. But alas, there wasn’t one, so it is on my list when I drop by the factory again.
Gary and I bought a gold box with one-half pound but it barely survived the 2-hour trip back to Cotacachi. Even though Jeff says that his Ecuador chocolate has a one-year shelf life, by the next day, only the empty box was left to remind us of our visit to his Ecuador chocolate factory.
Jeff is a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine in the U.S. but is mostly self-taught. He studied and worked with several major chocolatiers in Washington, D.C. before opening his own factory in Quito.
He and his family live in Cumbaya, a 10-mile drive from Quito, but from his factory windows, we could see Jeff’s wife of 11 years, Maria, playing with their two children, ages 2 and 4.
The house Maria grew up in is conveniently located right behind the chocolate factory, complete with lawn and loving grandparents, so Jeff has the best of both worlds, enjoying his work but seldom far from his family.
Jeff is exploring the possibility of making Ecuador chocolates with honey in them for the Ecuador Honey Company, which produces 6 kinds of honey, including exotics like radish flower honey and avocado honey. Yummm. . . I can’t wait!
The word “gianduja” means a type of chocolate candy first developed by Pierre Paul Caffarel or a chocolate preparation made with approximately 50% hazelnut or almond paste, blended with cocoa and sugar.
In 1826 Caffarel bought a new industrial machine invented by an Italian named Bozelli. Adapting the machine to make the world’s first large quantities of solid chocolate and later, in 1856, the hazelnut and chocolate candy he named Gianduja, all chocoholics are forever indebted to him.
While not as weird as Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, Gianduja Chocolatier is every bit as much fun to visit and definitely delicious.
See Jeff’s Ecuador chocolate-making video: