Altisimo is chocolate paradise in Cuenca

Jackie loves cognac. Her eyes glaze over as she talks about the complex aftertaste remaining after the tiniest sip which she enjoys while re-reading “Stiff” by Mary Roach.

The sad fact is that this elixir is a bit over our budget here in Ecuador so Jackie has been deprived for several months … until now. She has discovered a substitute as satisfying as her beloved cognac, full of complex aftertaste and comfort. It is artisanal hot chocolate made by beans harvested off of heirloom cacao trees at Altisimo Chocolate Factory and Bistro.

Altisimo  Chocolate is the new café — coffee house / chocolatier / pastry bakery / artisanal chocolate factory — on Gran Columbia 8-86 y Benigno Malo in the space previously occupied by Cuchara Magica.

Jackie finally convinced me to stop there today to check it out and learn more about world-class chocolate. We always figured chocolate was chocolate was chocolate, what the heck. Then we read about some company that sells Ecuador chocolate bars for over $200 each, and wondered what the big deal was. How’s that possible?

Well, let me tell you, there’s a very real difference between the Hershey bar we’ve all grown up with, and the world of artisanal chocolate you can experience at Altisimo.

We were there only for the chocolate, though they also offer baked goods, desserts, breakfasts and lunches at reasonable prices.

We both had a hot chocolate ($2.75), which came with marshmallows made in-house.  When the waiter brought them to our table out on the patio, I could smell the rich odor from several feet away. I took my first sip, and, OMG, the burst of flavor!  We’re not in Hershey, Pennsylvania any more, Toto!

This was something quite different, and very, very delicious. You know the difference between a box of local vino tinto and a good cognac? They are both based on red grapes, so how can they be so different?

We also had a Chocolate Surprise Cake ($2.75) and a taste of the chocolate maracuya mousse square and the chocolate liquor mousse. To die for!

I’m not knocking a good Hershey bar or a Snickers; they are plenty good, and predictable, and we normally drink Clos in a box. But now and again . . . you just have to have something extraordinary. And the hot chocolates at Altisimo were not all that expensive.

The chocolate bars they sell are another matter. There are 18 different chocolates that are available to sample and to buy. The chocolate bars are all two-ingredient, single source chocolate made from some of the rarest beans in the world. The bars sell from $13 to $25 each, and are considered absurdly underpriced in the world of high-end chocolate.

The reason for this expense is that the beans making up this product are exclusively from ancestral cacao trees.

In 1921, a plant disease destroyed 85 percent of the cacao crop in Ecuador. Since then, a more resistant strain of trees was developed, unfortunately with some loss in the flavor of the beans. The new strain provided larger pods and a higher yield per hectare, and many of the heirloom trees were cut down to make room for the new variety. The heirloom trees now constitute only three percent of the cacao beans grown in Ecuador, and it is difficult to get farmers to sell pods from only those trees.

Altisimo is the brain child of Ruth Mahoney. She and her husband, James Wilson, made a conscious decision early on, “If we’re going to make chocolate, let’s make the best chocolate in the world.” In blind taste tests against ten of the leading chocolate manufacturers, Altisimo’s chocolate has won the first three places. The Chocolate Society of London (that has to be the coolest name for any group in the world) has rated this chocolate as “having the most perceived tasting notes in the world.”

Altisimo on Gran Columbia has renovated their space, and now includes comfortable seating indoors and outside at tables with white tablecloths and roses at every table. The service is impeccable and courteous with English-speaking staff.

There are two kitchens at Altisimo: one for pastries and bakery, and the other for savory dishes.

And, by the way, they sell really good sourdough bread for $3.50 a loaf!

Artisimo Chocolate Factory and Bistro, Gran Columbia 8-86 and Benigno Malo

Hours: Open every day from 8 am to 7 pm, but expect to expand hours to 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. in the next few weeks.

Disabled accessible; WiFi is available;

NO credit cards;

Check them out on Facebook  &  Instagram

Reviewer notes: Highly recommended