Ever wondered how chocolate begins. Hopefully this slight whistle-stop tour will give you a bit of an insight.
Your morsel of chocolate is created from the cocoa tree, the pod and the cocoa beans. As well as the various processes along the way to transform the cacao into our beloved food; chocolate. Oh and we mustn't forget the skilled team from farmers through to the production teams.
Off we go ... the cocoa tree begins its life, either on a plantation (teeny weeny or large). They tend to take from 3-5 years to grow and then produce harvest-able fruit. If you get the chance to walk through a plantation you will be amazed by the different shapes of pods and hue of colours. The sight of cocoa pods is mesmerising and imprints lifetime memories.
The cocoa flower, which produces the pods, is, dare I say it, one of the most stunning flowers in the world. You will find them growing along the trunk (cauliflory) and on the branches. Midges in the forest dart about and help pollinate the flowers.
After 4-5 months some of these flowers will turn into a cocoa pod. It takes a lot of flowers on one tree to bear fruit - some older trees may only generate 20 or so pods a year yet over 1,000 flowers. The pod then takes a couple of weeks to ripen before it's ready for harvest. (They don't all ripen at the same time).
All pods are harvested by hand which as you can imagine is extremely labour intensive. Even at this early stage of chocolate the mis-timing of harvesting can effect the end quality and chocolate flavour. Once harvested the pods are slashed open with a knife to reveal the beans and their sticky protective mucilage. If you ever have the chance to taste this ... dont' say no! Imagine a gentle perfume of lychee and slight hint of vanilla. it's sweet nectar and why many of the farmers and their children suck on this before spitting out the beans!
The first stage of processing is underway as the beans are placed into a wooden fermentation tank. They are covered with banana leaves and any of the mucilage left drains away through holes. This stage is really where the chocolate flavour begins. The timing is crucial, the conditions vital. Sadly some of the smaller farmers are in a hurry to get their beans to the coops and don't leave the fermenting process long enough. Usually its 5-7 days but it all depends on the beans; some prefer 3 days.
The second stage is drying. This can take place by the roadside (far from ideal as the beans can take on a tar like flavour and also absorb exhaust fumes), on mats in the garden or, ideally, on a roof. Beans which are dried quickly in the intense heat of the sun can often have their flavour tainted. Again its down to understanding the bean type, and importantly, the farmers being able to nuture the process. Something consumers and buyers must be prepared a fair price for.
The beans then head to a local coop. (Smaller farmers will fill up a jute sack and carry it for some way to their local bus stop to get to their nearest coop). Larger plantations sometimes head straight to the factory. Numerous random sample testing takes place from this stage on. They include; checking the humidity of the beans and slicing through the middle to see if the beans are defective and many more.
Roasting time for the cocoa beans is the next process; each bean has its own roasting time and roasting temperature - the importance of which is crucial for the end flavour notes. Roasting encourages the chocolate flavour to develop. Once roasted the beans are winnowed (have their husks removed and broken into small pieces) to emerge as cocoa nibs.
These nibs are then milled to create what is known, in the trade, as chocolate liquor. Finally ... after all of the above you can finally catch a waft of something a bit like chocolate. Heaven! This liquor is then pressed to squeeze out the cocoa butter leaving a solid mass known as the cocoa press-cake (cocoa powder).
Amounts of cocoa butter and the cocoa mass are combined to produce dark, milk or white chocolate. (Dark and milk chocolate contain cocoa solids made up from both cocoa butter and the cocoa press-cake. White chocolate does also contains cocoa solids but these solids are all made up from cocoa butter hence it light colour). Other ingredients are also added and may include sugar, milk powder (for milk or white chocolate), vanilla, soya/sunflower lecithin (although some chocolate recipes don't contain lecithin).
The chocolate then undergoes further refinement to make it into a smooth paste before the near final processing stage; conching. The conching machine kneads the chocolate which not only improves the flavour but also evaporates any acidity. The time of this process is again vital to the quality of chocolate flavour; too little or too long will upset the delicate balance of near-too perfection.
Tempering is the final process. This stabilises the crystallisation of the cocoa butter. You will know if your chocolate hasn't been tempered correctly as it will be lacking the all-important 'snap' factor when you break the bar open, it will have a grainy texture and could have white film on its surface due to fats migrating. Correct temperatures are key to this process as well as the controlled environment you work in.
Once the chocolate has been tempered it is ready to be poured into moulds.
Then its ready to be savoured ... every chocolate note appreciated way beyond the mouthful. Allowed to develop and resonate on the palette and lead to daydreams of plantations ... cocoa ... et al.
(All photos were taken by Amelia Rope in Colombia. Amelia Rope retains the copyright)
Amelia's Suggested Chocolate Reads:
The Chocolate Connoisseur, Chloe Doutre-Roussel
The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao, Allen M Young
Chocolate Nations, Orla Ryan