Heroes Around the World highlights amazing people we meet on our travels. From pursuing their dreams to changing the world, we find their stories inspiring. We hope you do too.
Down at the end of this street, near the base of the stairs, is a little chocolate shop that goes by the apt name of La Tiendita De Chocolate. Located in the Colombian town of Guatapé, La Tiendita sells delectable chocolate desserts of all kinds, from bars of pure dark chocolate to creamy bonbons. The chocolate bars shimmer in their clear wrappers, boasting flavors like Himalayan sea salt and pink peppercorns. The bonbons, wrapped in tissue paper and foil, carry equally refined taste combinations: almond, rum, tequila, or caramel with roasted cacao nibs.
Every piece of chocolate is handmade onsite by the owner and man behind La Tiendita, José, his wife, or their assistants. When we visited, José was busy behind the counter showing off some new chocolates. We had initially planned to make a quick purchase to nibble on our walk through town, but the panoply of options made it hard to choose which. José laughed at this, and handed us a piece of chocolate. “Try this,” he said. It was a dark chocolate truffle flavored with tequila and cream.
I’ve encountered a lot of chocolate in my life, both commercial and gourmet, but nothing quite like what José makes. His focus is on dark chocolate, which he makes from personally-sourced cacao beans. He says he spends a lot of time looking for new bean sources and interesting flavors, which occupies him whenever he’s not shopkeeping. I’d believe it. Biting into a piece of José chocolate reveals complex and fruity flavors. There’s a tang of citrus at the front, followed by a more mellow cherry taste, and the unmistakable bitterness of a dark chocolate that somehow lacks the harsh burnt flavor I’m used to finding in other dark chocolate. I find myself longing for a glass of wine instead of a glass of milk to accompany the chocolate.
Piece after piece, we sample several chocolates in José has on offer. Each is fine blend, with additions to the chocolate playing on its fruitiness. We discuss the flavors with him, and he guides us through his sources for beans on a flavor map of South America: He points out regions that produce cacao beans rich in chocolatey flavors, and other regions that produce beans with lighter, more floral profiles. His knowledge on chocolate is incredible, and we stay with him for hours, taking a virtual trip of South America’s cacao growing regions. At one point, he even pulls a fresh cacao pod out of storage and shares some of the fruit with us.
We learn that José wasn’t always a chocolate-maker. “I used to work as a field producer for FoxTelecolombia,” he says in perfect English. But he was always experimenting with chocolate. “It was my passion!” he laughs, “And eventually my wife asked ‘Why don’t you quit your job and follow your passion?’ That’s how we got started.” José has been making chocolate ever since, experimenting with everything he can get his hands on and eventually opening La Tiendita here in Guatapé, his wife’s home town. Now he spends his days managing the shop, creating chocolates from his recipes, and crafting new recipes.
But the most inspiring thing about José is his goal of building a gourmet Colombian chocolate an international sensation. He sees a future for Colombian chocolate like that of Ecuador and Peru, whose gourmet chocolate industries have exploded in the past decade as consumers seek higher quality. “Right now, there are very few gourmet chocolate-makers in Colombia and it can be difficult to get supplies,” José says, “We have (the company) Luker, but that’s it, so I make chocolate to show the world how great Colombian chocolate can be.” He tells us how visitors to Guatapé have found his shop and have become obsessed. Once, two Japanese visitors left with two full cases of his chocolate bars. Visitors have also sometimes sent him ingredients he can’t get in Colombia, like flavored liqueurs. All of it has helped him grow La Tiendita and make better chocolate, although he still makes chocolate out of love rather than for profit. “The store may fail, but I will always make chocolate,” he says.