Raíces de Chocolate: How Ashley Ugarte is Shaping the Chocolate World Inspired by Her Mexican Heritage

Chocolate History is Latin American History

Chocolate is one of the most popular foods around the world and is made from cacao tree seeds native to Latin America. Ancient Olmec pots and vessels from around 1500 B.C. were discovered with traces of theobromine, the stimulant compound found in chocolate. The Olmecs of southern Mexico are believed to be the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans for drinks.

Later on, ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, like the Aztecs and Mayans, cultivated and consumed cacao beans, considering them a divine gifts. They would use cacao beans mixed with chili peppers, vanilla, and other spices, to create a frothy, spiced chocolate beverage called xocolātl.

The Chocolate Industry is Not So Sweet

Fast forward to today and chocolate is now a household name and a billion dollar industry. The vast majority of cacao (70% of global supply) is sourced in West Africa, where the supply chain is fraught with child labor, slavery and environmental degradation

Cacao is a cash crop and farmers tend to clear forests to plant new cocoa trees rather than reusing the same land. This has resulted in massive deforestation in West Africa, particularly in Ivory Coast. Experts estimate that 70% of the country’s illegal deforestation is related to cocoa farming.

A Sustainable Approach That Also Preserves Cultural Traditions

But it doesn't have to be this way...

Dionisia Garcia is a chocolate producer from a long line of protectors of the Oaxacan cacao legacy. She grows cacao sustainably in her agroforestry plot in a mountainous region of northeast Oaxaca, alongside other native trees, the way cacao was grown by her ancestors. Doña Dionisia grows heirloom cacao varieties, which are over 100 years old, from seeds she inherited from her grandparents. Her cacao production is small, ethically harvested, and highly coveted.

Enter Ashley Ugarta, a self-described border kid, world-class chocolatier, and founder of Hijita. Hijita is a small-batch Mexican chocolateria rooted in ancestral wisdom, guided by wellness & equity, and inspired by childhood memories.

Ashley is not just creating chocolate; she's reclaiming the narrative. Through Hijita, she channels the richness of her Mexican roots into each step of the chocolate making process. Inspired by childhood memories, Ashley infuses her chocolates with flavors from Mexico's diverse culinary landscape. From hints of Mexican-grown cinnamon and vanilla, to a savory salt finish sourced form Colima, Mexico, every bite tells a story of tradition.

By blending her culinary expertise with a passion for sustainability, Ashley is able to do something truly special. She is crafting delicious treats, while contributing to a more responsible and mindful approach to chocolate consumption.

Ashley practices responsible sourcing and works directly with families in Mexico cultivating heirloom cacao. And she sources directly from Doña Dionisia to create a very special and rare drinking chocolate. 

Hijita Chocolate

Hijita is a celebration of heritage and a delicious reminder that the sweetest things often have the most profound stories behind them. We are so honored to partner with Ashley to tell her story.

We sat down to talk to Ashley about her journey... 

What inspired you to start Hijita? What's your founding story?

As the daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother, my upbringing immersed me in the vibrant tapestry of Mexican culture and cuisine, for which I am eternally grateful. However, like many children of immigrants in America, I often found myself straddling two worlds, feeling neither fully Mexican nor genuinely American. It was my passion for cooking throughout my childhood that was my saving grace, and served as a tether to my ancestral heritage, which followed me into adulthood. 

Ashley Ugarte - Hijita Chocolate

Embarking on a culinary journey, I ventured into the culinary scene of the Bay Area, initially honing my skills in savory kitchens before discovering an affinity for the pastry kitchen. My culinary journey led me to the esteemed Dandelion Chocolate, a beacon of excellence in bean-to-bar craftsmanship nestled in San Francisco.

Here, amidst the intoxicating aromas of freshly-roasted cacao and the meticulous artistry of chocolate-making, my fascination for craft chocolate was ignited. Over the course of four transformative years, I underwent rigorous professional training, from pastry cook, to confectioner, culminating in my elevation to the role of Head Chocolatier, trusted to lead their award-winning confections department.

During my tenure at Dandelion, my chocolate-making education primarily followed American and Eurocentric techniques. However, it was the absence of a Mexican cacao origin in Dandelion’s offerings that sparked my fascination and drove me to immerse myself in the history of Mexican cacao and chocolate.

This newfound passion ignited my inner child, compelling me to become immersed in an ancestral approach to chocolate making.

I had no idea at the time, that I’d become inspired to start my own chocolate company, which became the foundation for Hijita.

How has your Latinidad influenced your approach to chocolate making?

My connection to my heritage and Mexican culture served as the catalyst for questioning the Eurocentric techniques and approaches prevalent in my chocolate-making training. Through cooking, and later chocolate making, I found a medium that not only facilitated the acceptance of my Mexican-American duality but also allowed me to fully embrace it. This duality now acts as a guiding principle, reminding me to remain steadfast in honoring my roots and preserving the legacy of my ancestors.

Bowl of Cacao Beans with pieces of chocolate

Are there specific ingredients or techniques you incorporate that connect to Mexican traditions?

Through my education in cacao, cultivated during my time at Dandelion, I came to recognize the crucial trifecta that shapes the distinct flavor profile of chocolate:

  1. terroir, highlighting the intricate interplay between the land and soil in which cacao is cultivated,
  2. cacao processing at the farm level, encompassing how the producer grows, ferments and dries their cacao, and
  3. the significance of cacao processing by the chocolate maker, detailing how they roast and refine the chocolate. 

This epiphany underscored that the essence of Mexican chocolate lies inherently within the cacao itself and how it’s processed. It became evident that the mere addition of cinnamon to any cacao wouldn't suffice to create authentic Mexican chocolate—a misconception prevalent among many here in the US.

This led me to source cacao lavado (washed and unfermented cacao) that is used exclusively in Mexico for making drinking chocolate, as well as Mexican-grown cinnamon and vanilla bean from Veracruz.

My favorite cacao lavado that I use is a scarcely produced single-estate cacao grown by Dionisia Garcia and her family in Chinantla, Oaxaca. I also source single-origin fermented cacao from Tabasco and Chiapas to create chocolate bars, bonbons, and truffles, which boast a uniquely fruity aroma thanks to the heirloom genetics that exist in many Mexican cacao origins.

Heirloom Cacao grown sustainably through agroforestry systems

At the same time, I delved into the essential tools of Mexican chocolate-making, including the molino—a modern innovation from the ancient metate – which I use to grind cacao lavado into the coarse texture of chocolate that Mexico is known for.

Quote from text and Picture of Hijita Founder Ashley

My dream is to create a chocolate oasis where we can slow down, observe the chocolate-making process, bask in the chocolatey aromas as molinos grind cacao and spices together into fresh chocolate, and relish in community as I prepare my creations slowly and intentionally, frothing each drink to order using traditional molinillos.  

Can you share any family traditions or recipes that have inspired your chocolate creations?

My maternal grandmother, a native of Veracruz, is an extraordinary cook, boasting culinary skills honed through the mentorship and guidance of formidable matriarchs throughout her childhood.

Since before I was even born, my mom has kept a journal, serving as a handwritten account of my abuelita's cherished recipes—a possession of unparalleled significance. I draw profound inspiration and a deep-seated love for cooking from both my abuelita and mom.

Growing up, my sister and I eagerly joined our mom in our South Texas kitchen, recreating some of my abuelita’s recipes, from corn tortillas to mole to aguas frescas like horchata (which has inspired many of my chocolate creations).

Yet, it was the recurring tradition of savoring cups of chocolate caliente during the holidays at my abuelita’s house in Mexico that captivated my curiosity to dive deeper into the history and cultural significance of Mexican chocolate.

hijita heirloom oaxacan chocolate

Regardless of where we lived in Texas, from Laredo to McAllen to San Antonio, that iconic yellow hexagon box of Mexican chocolate served as a constant fixture in our pantry, providing not only solace but also a sense of familial connection to my abuelita.

How do you approach sustainability in your chocolate production, keeping in mind both cultural roots and environmental impact?

At Hijita, sustainability stands as a foundational principle, informing each and every decision I undertake. As a dedicated chocolate maker, I understand the significance of every ingredient, with a particular emphasis on the cacao.

However, when investing extensive efforts in sourcing the finest Mexican cacao, cultivated with utmost care and respect for both its soil and communities, it becomes imperative to extend this conscientious approach to all ingredients.

Whether sourcing sugar or spices, I approach each selection with unwavering intentionality, mindful of its ecological and social impact, and with a commitment to uncompromising quality. This ethos of sustainability extends beyond the production of the chocolate, encompassing every operational aspect, including our packaging, which is now entirely compostable.

 Chocolate Crisps with a quote from the text

What makes Hijita chocolate unique?

I believe that what makes Hijita’s chocolate unique is the convergence of my meticulous sourcing, unrelenting dedication to preserving and honoring Mexican cacao culture, and commitment to crafting products that reflect my personal journey as a Mexican-American border-kid.

Community and connection lie at the heart of Hijita, serving as foundational pillars that drive me to craft chocolate resonant with nostalgia and a profound appreciation for my ancestral roots. And it’s my hope that people can taste that in my chocolate.

Can you tell us about any particular memories or stories from your family that have shaped your journey as a chocolate maker?

Some of my most cherished childhood memories, which significantly influenced my path as a chocolate maker, were the countless holidays spent at my grandparents' home in Mexico.

Surrounded by beloved tías, tíos, cousins, and, of course, my favorite foods like pan dulce and hot chocolate, these gatherings left a permanent imprint on my heart. It’s these nostalgic recollections that serve as the driving force behind my creations, permeating my chocolate with the essence of those cherished moments.



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