It started with a hot chocolate in Paris.
Carolina Quijano, who at the time was working as a consultant on Wall Street, stopped to have a sweet beverage while visiting the City of Light. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how simple it was, and I just wanted to bring to the U.S. something similar to what I had tasted overseas.” After spending two years trying to recreate that chocolatey, magical moment in her studio apartment while continuing her full time job, she left to open her own chocolate factory in Miami: Exquisito Chocolates.
Now, Quijano takes through the weeks-long process she and her employees embark on to make chocolate. She explains how each farm, region, and country produces different varieties of cocoa beans that exhibit different flavors—from fruity to nutty to earthy and beyond. After receiving bags of cocoa beans directly from Peru, Ecuador, and Guatemala, Quijano shows us how she uses her expertise to sort through and handpick the best beans, which are then roasted. After that, a machine separates the husk from the nib, which is where the actual chocolate comes from. While some shops discard the husks, Exquisito Chocolates gives theirs to beer brewers and tea farmers, who use it to add complex flavors to their products. Quijano then hand mills the nibs to turn them into a chunky paste. The paste goes into a refiner — a basin-like machine that smooths and aerates the chocolate — to turn it into a liquid. Sugar and sometimes milk powder (depending on if it’s milk or dark chocolate) are added at this stage, and then it’s set to solidify. To get the correct crystallization, the solid chocolate is melted again, tempered, cooled, and smoothed to achieve the right texture. “This is extremely important,” notes Quijano. “You can make the best tasting chocolate in the world, but based on the texture, it will not be as good as when you have a good temper.” From here, the chocolate can be made into bars, ganache, bon bons, and more.
Quijano emphasizes how she does everything in her power to keep the integrity of the bean and of the natural chocolate flavors. “Making a product like this that’s so labor intensive by hand, it helps us control the process more from start to finish,” she says. “When we roast and we analyze, we have more of a care for what we’re doing as opposed to just everything being fed through a machine. It’s a very long process, and behind each bar there’s a farmer and a story...and we really want to make sure we honor that.”
The farmers she mentions, and the sourcing of the beans, is an integral part of what makes Exquisito Chocolates unique. Quijano always supports the producers and farmers of beans directly, as many of the farmers live less than a dollar day. “For us it’s really important to support these producers who are investing time and money to do something better. They should be compensated for what they’re doing. We’re not talking about ‘fair trade,’ we’re going above that which is direct trade and being able to pay them more than that basic commodity price.”
“Chocolate is happiness,” Quijano says of her handcrafted product. “It’s something that can really soothe your mind and soothe your soul.”