Anthropologist turned chocolate entrepreneur, Amanda Jo Wildey first fell in love with Peru when she studied in Cusco during college. She returned to Lima to earn her master’s in anthropology and worked on a cacao farm while finishing her thesis on cacao, so it only seemed natural to open what she calls a “chocolate library” and shop, El Cacaotal, last year in the trendy Barranco neighborhood. Amanda Jo tells Indagare about the mission behind El Cacaotel, Peru’s hidden treasures and the best chocolate bars to pick up at her shop.
When did you first arrive in Lima?
I moved to Lima in 2014 to study my Masters in Anthropology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
How did you decide to open El Cacaotal?
El Cacaotal is the final product of my Masters thesis. I studied the impact cacao could have on the lives of cacao farmers and realized that there was a link missing between the farmers and the market. This was especially true in the case of farmers who started making chocolate themselves. They had very little options for selling their products and El Cacaotal became the solution: we would buy their products and show them off in Lima. The concept grew from there to include not just farmers but Peruvian chocolate makers as well. Now, El Cacaotal serves as a kind of library of Peruvian chocolate from all over the country.
What is El Cacaotal’s mission?
The mission of El Cacaotal is to showcase Peruvian cacao and chocolate in all of its diversity. It spans three levels; first, supporting farmers and chocolate makers so they can earn better incomes and become more visible nationally and internationally. Second, guiding farmers who are interested in starting to make chocolate by offering on-site workshops. Third, educating the general public about the incredible diversity of Peruvian cacao and chocolate. When people visit El Cacaotal, we offer samples of all of the bars so that people can get an idea of how the flavors change from region to region. We also offer sit-down chocolate tastings to teach visitors how to taste chocolates and start training their own palates.
What is your favorite thing about living in Lima?
The best part about living in Lima is being at the hub of so many fusions: art, music, gastronomy—different influences from all over the country converge here. There is always something new to explore!
Do you have a favorite neighborhood and if so, why?
Barranco is my favorite neighborhood because of its cozy but avant garde vibe. It’s like a bubble of calm in the sprawling Lima metropolis where you can find amazing food and art and people are interested in chatting and swapping experiences. Not to mention the architectural richness—a lot of the buildings date back a few centuries which makes for a perfect stroll around the town.
Do you have a favorite restaurant, and if so, why?
Lima abounds with top-notch restaurants where you can be endlessly amazed by the chefs’ mastery and never-ending ingenuity. But every now and then I crave something a little more low-key, and that’s when I go to Donde Anita, an unassuming lunch hot spot for locals in Barranco. No frills, nothing fancy, it has a classic homestyle feel. Anita’s ají de gallina is perfection.
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What three things do you think every first time visitor to Lima should do?
Aside from coming to El Cacaotal to try chocolate from all over the country, of course!
1) Visit the Parque de la Reserva, where they have the water fountain park. It’s best to go at dusk to get the full effects of the light show. (My own personal tip is to start from the end and work your way to the beginning to save the most impressive water fountains for last.)
2) Walk over the Bridge of Sighs in Barranco and watch the sun set over the ocean from one of the second floor restaurants like El Acantilado.
3) See the Plaza de Armas in the historic center both by night and by day—it takes on a completely different atmosphere! (And at night you can finish up the day by grabbing some fresh hot anticuchos from the street vendors stationed nearby and a pisco sour from the landmark Hotel Bolivar.)
What region of Peru should more people know about and why?
When people visit the Amazon, they usually go south to Madre de Dios or north to Iquitos, but Amazonas, the region just west of Iquitos, has tons of hidden adventures. It’s home to Kuelap, a stone city dating back to before the time of the Incas and Machu Picchu, and Gocta, the world’s third tallest waterfall.
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What three things would you suggest a shopper buyer in El Cacaotal and why?
1) Magia Piura truffles. These truffles achieve the perfect balance between chocolatey creaminess and flavors of exotic fruits typical of the northern Peruvian coast. There are truffles with mango, lúcuma, algarrobina, tamarind and for the purists there’s the truffle that I like to call “the bomb.” It’s a pure dark chocolate truffle with a layer of cocoa powder, and the chocolate is so flavorful that you would swear there were some kind of citrus fruit inside.
2) Shattell Chuncho, 70% cacao. Shattell was one of Peru’s first craft chocolate brands when it emerged in 2009. The Chuncho bar in particular took home first place last year in London in the 2017 International Chocolate Awards. It won five gold medals, including the award for best overall dark chocolate bar in the world. And the best part? It’s made from native Peruvian cacao from Cusco!
3) Scrap & Chocolate bars. These bars are unmistakeable: they are shaped like little Andean men, or “cholitos.” They are handcrafted by a woman from Piura who uses an incredibly rare type of cacao found on her uncle’s farm. And don’t forget to admire the boxes of the bars—each one is handmade, a relic of the chocolate maker’s scrapbooking days! Her milk chocolate bar won the title of “Best Milk Chocolate Bar in Peru” last year.