Photos By Éclat Chocolate

Traveler

Sweetening Connections from the Brandywine to Peru

West Chester chocolatier reaches beyond borders to enrich lives

By Emma Schkloven |

Christopher Curtin, owner and Master Chocolatier at Éclat Chocolate in West Chester, Pa., has made a name for himself in the chocolate world. His confections have received accolades from the likes of Bon Appetit, Food & Wine and Vogue. To earn the title of “Master Chocolatier,” he spent almost 15 years in Europe, working in some of the world’s finest chocolate houses in order to perfect his culinary technique.

Christopher Curtin sitting with Peruvian cacao beans.

But there’s more to Curtin than his tasty treats. Curtin cares deeply about the product he produces, and that process starts with the beans. “We have been traveling around the globe looking for rare and exotic cocoa bean varieties for a while now,” Curtin says. He found just that in the Peruvian Nacional cacao, a bean rediscovered in 2011 after it was thought to have  been extinct.

Over three years of traveling to Peru, Curtin has developed a close relationship with the farmers who grow the cocoa beans, working with them during the picking process and often eating a meal at one of the farmer’s homes at day’s end. “It all started with trying to get a more personal relationship with – the people responsible for growing and creating this amazing product,” Curtin explains. It ended with something extra. In the Peruvian village of Marañón Canyon, he found more than just a rare bean, he found a worthy cause.

Marañón Cañon village, Peru.

The Marañón Cañon region of Peru, inhabited by about 5,000 families, is separated from other regions of the country by the Marañón River, which flows along the eastern edge of the Andes. Narrow footpaths carved into the canyon’s ridges are treacherous to even the most sure-footed traveler. Few cars and bikes dare to traverse the terrain. To reach the villages where the farmers grow the precious pure Nacional, one must make the perilous journey via boat or barge. Separated from the modern conveniences much of the world enjoys, life in the canyon villages is difficult; but the people take pride in the crop they produce.

While some of the farmers grow the pure Nacional, others grow a more dangerous crop: rice. Originally brought to Peru through a government subsidy, rice now places a great strain on not only agriculture in the villages, but also the villagers’ lives. Large amounts of rice husks, left behind after the harvesting process, litter the landscape, towering in piles up to two stories high. These husks contain silica, which can damage the lungs, and when the temperature rises, the mounds of husks sometimes spontaneously combust and smoke for weeks, sending silica up into the air and into the lungs of the villagers.

In 2012, Éclat Chocolate worked with DiscoverHope, an organization that aims to better the lives of impoverished women in Peru, donating funds to help kick off a project that would improve the lives of the people who harvest these precious cocoa beans. “The rice hull[s] are basically a free resource that can be made very inexpensively into fuel,” Curtin says.

New rice stove in Peruvian family kitchen.

A rice stove utilizes the rice husks as a fuel source, thereby minimizing the need for wood fires, which, like the husks, also release gasses that can cause respiratory and skin problems. “It basically works like a pellet stove, where the rice hull[s] drop down and burn at extremely high temperatures to avoid pollution and smoke that would be unhealthy to the families using them in smaller homes,” Curtin explains.

According to Curtin, each stove currently costs roughly $100, but the hope is that they can be produced for less and eventually distributed to every family at no cost.

Another part of the project is to ensure that each rice stove is locally built. “Manufacturing in the valley is important because it — also brings in new skills, and hopefully another local business can be created in building the stove for other valleys and maintaining the stoves when needed,” Curtin shares.

Villagers send their thanks to donors.

Not only has the DiscoverHope’s project changed the lives of the farmers, it has also impacted Curtin. “The returns of getting more involved are beyond what I ever dreamed of. We’re changing people’s lives in a really positive way,” Curtin says.

Curtin is just one of many chocolatiers who have joined together to help better the lives of the villagers that work so closely with the chocolate industry. Together, they are bettering the lives of others. That’s a pretty sweet deal!

To learn more about the rice stove project as well as other causes to help alleviate poverty, visit DiscoverHope’s website.