Date Archives October 2014

Trick or Treat: It’s a chocolatey giveaway!

trick or treat giveaway

It’s my favorite day of the year! Later tonight, I’ll be handing out toddler-size chocolate bars to excited kids and sullen teens, so why not wrap up a fun week on the blog with my very first giveaway? For you, like some sort of half-assed Oprah, I’ve got some bars of Theo chocolate, fresh from the factory, and some of my favorites from the Northwest Chocolate Festival: Dandelion small-batch single-origin chocolate bars from Belize and Madagascar (You know how when you go to wine-tastings and some dude with his nose in the air swirls his glass and says he can taste piquant cherries, verdant summer, children’s laughter, and a hint of impudent squirrel, and all you taste is fucking wine? This is like that except you actually CAN taste the different notes. Amazing!), burnt sugar salted caramel sauce from Hot Cakes that made me weak in the knees, and some of the best toffee I’ve ever eaten from Holm Made Toffee (they make several amazing flavors and I almost included red pepper or lavender but decided to go with a classic instead).

All of this stuff has been paid for by me, is not sponsored or affiliated in any way, and is being given away for the joy of giving and also to maybe spread the word about the blog a bit. If no one enters, my game plan involves eating all of it in one sitting while crying, which sounds delicious except for the crying part so it’s really a win-win.

Happy Halloween!

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Nom or Vom: Death By Chocolate…And Poison, I’ll Stick In Some Poison

chocolate covered scorpionvia ThinkGeek

Oh chocolate, you giveth and you taketh away, giving us a desire for dessert and at the same time, a revulsion so great that we may never eat dessert again. What is the lesson we’ve learned? If it can be covered in chocolate, it will be covered in chocolate. And someone will probably eat it. Is that someone you?

Pros: Enrobed in chocolate like all the finest things in life, devenomed for your eating pleasure, not eating insects is just a western social construct, probably like the crunchiest chocolate covered chip in the world…

Cons: …Except that it’s also filled with goo and is made of scorpion, you have to chew the stinger thoroughly to prevent it from scratching your esophagus on the way down which means more time in your mouth, given our Western social constructs you can prepare to never be tongue-kissed again by attractive people who now know you’re a bug-eater, being haunted by the ghost of a pissed off scorpion who can call his fully-venomous brethren on you

Would you eat a chocolate covered scorpion?

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“Don’t make me run, I’m full of chocolate!”: The Northwest Chocolate Festival

nw chocolate festival

More and more, the Pacific Northwest is coming to be known as a place for local artisanal food, microbrews, and wines, so it only makes sense that chocolates were soon to follow. The Northwest Chocolate Festival is a celebration of chocolate in all its forms, from nibs to confection to pastry, packing in over 80 companies and 50 workshops onto the waterfront over two days for enthusiasts to partake (gorge) and make merry.

It is unbelievable the amount of chocolate one can eat at the festival if they try. There were two entirely full show floors, with each vendor generally offering multiple samples, encouraging you to try more, with most with wares for sale at the show so you could take home your favorites. I came into this mostly blind, having purchased my ticket on one of those daily discount sites, neither reading the ticketing site’s description nor the festival website, so I had no idea it was as large and involved as it was or I might have eaten some breakfast beforehand or planned to attend both days. Between the workshops spread over seven stages and the vendors, there is no way to see and try everything in one day, or even over both. There were culinary classes, tasting workshops, artisanal chocolate lectures, demonstrations on Mesoamerican chocolate drink preparation,  discussions on farming, a pro series, and even some spicier talks in the aphrodisiac zone! I had two goals: eat as much chocolate as humanly possible, and attend the noon keynote presentation: “Taste the fruit of the cacao tree” because even if the tour guide at Theo had been able to answer my question about its flavor, it’s something I wanted to try for myself, and it’s a rare opportunity in the United States.valrhona

I started on the upper floor and ate an ungodly amount of chocolate. I tried chocolate that had caramel blended into it instead of being caramel-filled. I tried stone-ground chocolate. I tried single-origin chocolate. I tried burnt caramel sauce. I tried a chocolate shot. I tried toffee. I tried bars with every imaginable kind of inclusion. I tried truffles. I tried truffle filling. I worried momentarily when all of the samples were shut down temporarily by the health department due to lack of handwashing facilities and then I ate more anyway because whatever doesn’t kill me will only fill me with more chocolate.

choc xo chocolate shot

fresh cocoa pod

And THEN it was time for the lecture. Bill “The Chocolate Man” Fredericks spent most of the hour going in depth into how the fruit of the cacao tree grows and how delicate the fruit and ecosystem are that sustains it. I had learned some about this from the Theo tour and Chocolate: The Exhibit  at MOHAI, but the majority was new to me. For instance, I’ve already talked about how chocolate grows off of the trunk of the cacao tree and that it needs to be harvested by humans. I learned that this is because the cacao pods grow out of “blisters” on the trees and if those blisters are damaged in any way, that part of the tree will never bear fruit again. Also, if you clear the litter from below the trees, they will not set fruit, as the litter is the home for their pollinators. He also said the fruit itself is easily blighted, that disease and mold spread rapidly, and because some large companies will buy the fruit (and pay the same price) whether the fruit is moldy or pristine, some farmers aren’t as motivated to care for the trees correctly, and they’re also planting varietals that have higher yields but shittier flavor. This is one of those issues that’s remedied by chocolatiers who have a close relationship with their cacao growers: they pay higher prices to ensure the best quality.

He also passed two fresh cacao pods around the room and encouraged people to hold, smell, and shake them: the way to know if a cacao pod is ripe is if the beans shake inside the pod. Rest assured, I shook the shit out of the one I was passed and it was indeed ripe. Just before the hour was up, they were passed back to the front and Bill demonstrated how to best open the pods so as to not damage any of the seeds inside. When he cut them open, the insides looked (as my friend Shannon put it) “like horrible alien worm babies”. She was not wrong. But then the hour ended, people started leaving, and we still had not tasted the fruit which was the whole reason I attended. The remaining attendees were invited on stage to inspect the opened pods more closely, and I don’t know if that invitation included eating it, and I don’t know who started reaching out and grabbing a bit of horrible alien worm baby for their very own first, but all of a sudden hands started flying in and tearing it apart, and I escaped with a piece of it for myself and the knowledge that I had participated in something that could probably be categorized as a mob. The important thing is that I was able to try the fruit, which I will describe thusly: like a thinner, slimier, membranous lychee with a much larger seed. And, since it was in my mouth, I ate the seed as well, which tasted like slightly bitter nothing. It was at that point that my mind was well and truly blown, because centuries ago, people found a fruit that just generally kind of sucked and then just kept trying to make it palatable instead of tossing it over their shoulder and moving on, and the result of that experimentation is one of the most popular flavors in the world. Perseverance, friends.

aphrodisiac lounge

After trying my illicit bean, the group made their way to the Aphrodisiac Lounge, entrance to which cost an additional $5 and proof of age. I wish I had known what was going to be in there beforehand, because I might not have laid down the additional cash. I mean, everyone knows that aphrodisiac is code for booze and adult situations, I just expected something a little more stimulating or maybe a little less sad or…I don’t know. It was a room that was much too brightly lit for sexy thoughts (the most brightly-lit room in the entire festival, in fact) with about six vendors offering boozy samples: two beers (both IPAs, ugh, everywhere you turn in Seattle there’s another damned too-hoppy IPA), a couple of brown liquors, a vodka thing, and some chocolate wine. I wasn’t really into any of it, but damned if they didn’t already get my $5, so I decided to try to put down at least one of each. Neither my mouth nor my stomach were happy with that decision, but that part of my brain that revels in stubborn determination was quite satisfied.

Once we were finished getting sauced, we went to find my friend’s partner who had stayed with their baby in the children’s play area, which turned out to be (and I am not making this up) literal piles of trash.

childrens play areaYou’ll play in it and you’ll like it and that’s final.

We eventually made our way around the first floor of the festival, trying more samples, pointing out particularly tasty bites to the rest of the group, but I began to lose both steam and my taste for sweets, so I definitely did not try as much on the first floor as I had on the second, which is why it might have been wiser to spread my visit over two days. Still, overall, it was well worth the purchase price and I’d absolutely consider attending next year.

 

Standout favorites of the day:

Valhrona

Dandelion Chocolates

Hot Cakes

Intrigue

Holm Made Toffee

Cocotutti

 

The smartest people there:

The Chocolate Man

Whoever decided to set up a gourmet food court with food other than chocolate including crazy-awesome pizza

That lady I saw walking around with a camelbak of water, because eating chocolate for hours is thirsty work

 

The biggest losers:

That sad-ass aphrodisiac zone

That sad-ass children’s play zone

My sad-ass gut after eating much too much chocolate

Nom or Vom: The Anus That Made Britain Great

edible anusvia Edible Anus

 

“Rings of succulent chocolate cast and crafted from the posterior of our stunning butt model.” That pretty much sums it up, from the makers of other high-quality items like “pop out poo cards” and washcloths with the word “cuntface” embroidered on them. Some poor soul agreed to have their butthole molded for the sake of chocolate, and evidently other people will eat it.

Pros: It’s possibly made with decent chocolate, comes in dark, milk, and white chocolate so there’s something for everyone, supposedly what made britain great (surely not just a marketing slogan)

Cons: Anus shape, it’s designed to be distasteful so how good could it taste, I am so highly suggestible that no matter what flavor I tried it would smell and taste like poop to me, cast from an actual bootyhole, the texture you feel on your tongue is stranger anus, I don’t even like looking at my dog’s butt and I love him, not just dark, milk, and white chocolate but “meek milk” “dilated dark” and “tight white” oh god I am vomiting already

Would you eat a chocolate anus?

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Boehms Chocolates

boehms

Boehm’s has been making chocolate confections in Issaquah, Washington since 1956, when founder Julius Boehm moved his operation there from Seattle as the surrounding mountains reminded him of his homeland.

The Boehm’s website indicates that they give tours at the factory and through the chalet from June-September, Monday through Friday, at 10:30am, 1pm, and 2pm by reservation. I made a reservation on said website for a 1pm tour for two people on a Thursday in September, indicating in the reservation form that they should call me if there are any issues with the reservation so I could make other arrangements. Imagine my surprise when both my friend and I arrived promptly at 12:55 and were rudely informed that there was no tour that day, that they only give tours through September. Apparently, neither their calendars nor their telephones work. We were then told we could take the window tour, which makes one feel like a starving Dickensian waif looking upon the riches of the gentry. “Please sir, I want some more!”

Thus began the reading of scotch taped signs in windows, or how it shall henceforth be known: The Pissed-Off Lack of Information Can’t Believe I Drove 45 Minutes to Take This Window Tour. I could just say that the Boehm’s staff is rude and disorganized and leave it at that. But since I took The Pissed-Off Lack of Information Can’t Believe I Drove 45 Minutes to Take This Window Tour, I’d like to share it with you as well. I’ll share the information I was able to glean from the tour, but if there are any questions I have that could have been answered by a tour guide, I’m going to put a made-up answer in its place. And now, on to the tour!

window tourJulius Boehm learned to make candy and pastries from his grandfather in Switzerland. He was an Olympic athlete and avid outdoorsman, who used his mountaineering skills to escape from the Nazis. Why were the Nazis after him specifically? Let’s say it’s because he built a life-size chocolate Hitler and bit its head off. I also like to imagine that there was a tense mountain chase scene, with Boehm skiing furiously across the Alps with the Nazis hot on his heels, throwing cherry cordials at them to make them lose their footing. Boehm remained an athlete until the day he died, becoming the oldest man to summit Mount Rainier at 75, and breaking his own record at 80. After moving to the United States, he started a candy shop in Seattle, eventually moving to Issaquah and building his own chalet, the first building of its style in the area. After he died, his friend and head cook took over the company.

copper kettle

A sign helpfully informed us that this is a copper kettle. You don’t say! They use it to mix and heat stuff, “the ingredients” as the sign said, so I don’t actually know what goes in here. Let’s say witches’ brew. Some candies are completed in this kitchen area and others continue into the rest of the factory. I don’t think anything chocolate-related is done in this room, but again, I couldn’t say for certain.

coating chocolate by hand

In this window, the sign pointed out that the employees were gloveless, but didn’t elaborate as to what is done to sanitize their hands. It also didn’t go into why they look so unhappy, but that may just be conjecture on my part. I can say that chocolate has never looked so unappetizing to me. The sign says that hand-dipping is a dying art (it takes a year of practice to master!), with fewer than 200 hand-dippers remaining in the United States today. Companies? Individuals? I’m going to go ahead and assume elves.

drizzling chocolateTruffle and cream centers are rolled into long ropes, which are then pinched off, rolled, and then coated with chocolate. Once covered, the candy is placed on a tray to cool and a design is drawn on the top to identify its flavor. Is this the origin of the phrase “pinch a loaf”? I will venture to guess “yes”.

old chocolate turkey

Here is a molded chocolate turkey that looks like it could be thirty years old. They have other molds, from little crosses to giant dolphins that weigh 37 pounds. Are people who are in the market for 37 pounds of chocolate all dolphin fanatics? How much does a 37 pound chocolate dolphin cost? How does one eat a 37 pound piece of chocolate? My guesses are “yes”, “$600” and “while snuggling it in a hot tub, letting it melt into your mouth and your various nooks and crannies at the same time”.

Then came a sign telling me that if I wanted to learn more, I could make an appointment for a scheduled tour and my head exploded.

bulging loincloth

What in the hell is going on here? Epic dongs.

And that’s the tour, folks! I hope you learned something: namely, to take the Theo tour instead.

 

Nom or Vom: An Eclair Covered with Chocolate So Dark, Light Cannot Escape Its Surface…And Also Stuffed With A Hot Dog

Chocolate Eclair Hot Dogvia Maple Lodge Farms

I know what you’re thinking: This is what’s wrong with America. But you’re wrong. This baby is Canada’s fault. Maybe they learned it from watching us, I don’t know. Either way, it’s a sliced chocolate eclair stuffed with a hot dog, covered in whipped cream and sprinkles. I don’t know if it also contains the standard eclair custard, and frankly, I’m not sure it matters.

Pros: You get your meal and your dessert at one low price, it certainly looks…festive, America finally not taking the blame for once

Cons: Might not have eclair custard, might have eclair custard, sweet cream and hot dog intermingling in your mouth

Would you eat a chocolate eclair hot dog?

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Chocolate the Exhibition at MOHAI

chocolate entryway

I’ve already talked about the general awesomeness of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry. They also offer the occasional amazing special exhibit. Chocolate: The Exhibition is a national tour, developed by the Field Museum of Chicago, and it’s actually been on the road since 2002. Its most current location is at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University, and it will be there through January 2015.

The scent of artificial chocolate is pumped through the vents as you enter Chocolate: The Exhibition, engaging the senses and preparing visitors for the smorgasbord of information to come. You’re started at a life size replica of a cacao tree, which not only shows how the pods grow (off of the trunk, not off of the branches like apples or peaches), but also talks about the ecosystem that the trees are part of and the life they help sustain, like the pink-legged graveteiro bird, which was first discovered in 1996 and primarily lives around cacao trees, or the endangered golden-headed lion tamarin, which makes its home in the canopy over cacao trees. It helps to show that our choices don’t exist in a vacuum: if there’s a high demand for cheap beef, more acres of rainforest are destroyed to make room for less-delicate, more profitable cattle. It’s why buying shade-grown cacao is important, as it helps keep the cacao part of the ecosystem instead of ripping down trees and growing it separately.

fake cacao podIt’s fake cacao pods, quick, someone call the Theo tour guide!

Cacao pods contain around 50 seeds, which is enough to make about 7 chocolate bars. But before it was ever made into bars (long before!) it was whipped into a frothy, spicy drink by the ancient Maya of Central America, a treat treasured by kings and priests, though the poor occasionally imbibed it as well. It was considered the food of the gods and was thus a treasured luxury item; as such, priests would present the seeds as offerings to the gods. The Maya also traded cacao to peoples who lived in cooler, drier areas who couldn’t grow the trees themselves–there’s evidence in a mural in central Mexico that the people there knew of the trees though their climate could not possibly support them. By the 1400s, cacao use had spread through Mesoamerica via the trade empire of the Aztecs, who would not only drink the cacao (or chocolatl), but also used it as a form of currency. In fact, some citizens in cacao growing areas paid their taxes to the Aztec rulers with cacao seeds!

cacao bean trade chart chocolate drinking vesselsDecorated vessels for drinking chocolate

In 1519, Hernan Cortes led Spanish soldiers to the Aztec capitol to divest them of their gold. Instead, they found cacao–lots of it. This opened the cacao market to Europeans, which is a polite way of saying that the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs, took their cacao, and sold it in Spain. Once it had been introduced to Europe, someone there added sugar to the beverage, and it quickly became renowned as a drink of the wealthy. However, it took nearly 100 years for knowledge of the drink to spread outside of Spain, for reasons that remain unknown. For some time, it was the beverage of choice, served only in private clubs to the rich, primarily to men. The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657, and within 50 years, there were more than 2,000 chocolate houses in London alone! When it was served in the home, it was in expensive, decorative cups and saucers, echoing the vessels of the Mayans and Aztecs. The cups themselves were symbols of wealth and status, and these wealthy people would often linger in bed over a cup of chocolate in the morning (which, I will be honest, sounds delightful) instead of coffee, which was considered the bitter drink of the working class (and is now sold to them for $5 a pop by mega coffee chains, so it’s not like coffee has suffered by that comparison).

aristocrat drinking chocolate

chocolate drinking china

I appreciated that the exhibit didn’t gloss over the human toll of chocolate’s growing popularity, spread over the almost the entirety of 300 years, both in Central America where the beans were grown via forced labor by the native peoples, and in North America, where slave labor was used to meet the increased demand for sugar, and later, to replace Native labor in southern Mexico and Central America when the population was drastically reduced by disease. In fact, sugar is directly responsible for the rapid growth of the slave trade in the Americas. The exhibit noted that at the beginning of the 19th century, the price of one teaspoon of sugar was approximately equal to the monetary value of one day in a slave’s life, and it’s deeply disturbing to consider that human life was valued so poorly compared to an amount of product that is now given away for free in packets in diners.

It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that things began to change, though even now, farmers work very hard growing cacao to sell to the world and many are so poor that they have never even tried chocolate in its finished form. Disgustingly, child labor and trafficking still flourishes in the cocoa trade, which, again, is why your purchase decisions matter, and why I’m glad that the museum didn’t skip over some of the less palatable aspects of the chocolate trade.

chocolate factory workers

chocolate molds

During the industrial revolution, mass production made chocolate more widely available and affordable to those other than the wealthy. In 1847, after patenting a method of grinding cocoa beans with a steam engine, Joseph Storrs Fry sold the first chocolate bar in England. Soon after, nearly every candy shop began to sell chocolates that had been molded in decorative molds. By the 20th century, mass-produced chocolates took over, and the world hasn’t looked back. In 1875, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle claimed they invented milk chocolate by adding condensed milk to their recipe; however, it must be noted that a company in Germany had already invented milk chocolate in 1839. Not only does this make the bars smoother and creamier, but it also made it possible to reduce the amount of cacao per bar, which made it overall cheaper to produce. In fact, today, the United States only requires a bar to contain a minimum of 10% of chocolate liquor to be considered milk chocolate; the standards in the EU are minimum 25% cocoa solids. In 2007, the chocolate manufacturer’s association (which includes Nestle, Hershey’s, and Archer Daniels Midland) began lobbying the FDA to change the legal definition of chocolate to allow the substitution of “safe and suitable vegetable fats and oils” including partially hydrogenated vegetable oils for cocoa butter in addition to using “any sweetening agent” (including artificial sweeteners) and milk substitutes. Currently, the FDA does not allow any product to be called “chocolate” if the product contains any of these ingredients. When you see something called “chocolate-y” or “made with chocolate”, that’s a product that contains one of the aforementioned ingredients…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

cocoaBe…sure…to…drink…your…Ovaltine. Ovaltine? A crummy commercial? Son of a bitch!

In the early 1800s, powdered drinking chocolate also began to be sold to the masses as cocoa: the cocoa butter had been extracted, and the chocolate had been treated with alkaline salts to help it mix with water. Cocoa had an overall milder taste than the drinking chocolate sold in chocolate houses, and it was easier to dissolve in liquid, which made it ideal for the home consumer.

chocolate in wartime

After World War I, the popularity of candy bars skyrocketed. During both world wars, chocolate became scarce and was rationed to soldiers. During World War II, almost all of the chocolate produced in the United States was earmarked for the military, as well as a good portion of the cranberries. It wasn’t until chocolate became much cheaper to make and buy that advertisers began to market to children. It’s taken off so well that recently Congress has tried to regulate how these foods are advertised to children in the hopes of combating childhood obesity.

passion for chocolate“You smell good enough to grind up into a paste, add chiles, and whip into a frothy beverage. Mmmm. Shall we go into the other room?”

The exhibit also discussed the myths about chocolate’s amorous effects. Although chocolate does contain phenylethylamine (the same substance created by the brain when a person experiences love), there’s no evidence that chocolate stimulates the libido. But chocolate has been entwined with romance since at least the 16th century, with Mesoamericans exchanging chocolate drinks at their wedding, and it’s a known fact that the lack of chocolate on Valentine’s Day has an anti-libidinous effect.

chocolate harvest

box of chocolates wall

Today, chocolate is a global industry centered around a narrow belt of areas within ten degrees (north and south) of the equator: primarily the Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Columbia, and Mexico. Cacao is hard work. Pods must be harvested by hand, trees take 3-5 years to begin to produce pods, and mold can wipe out entire crops. It is a guarantee that any piece of chocolate you have ever eaten contained cocoa that was hand-picked by a farmer in one of the above countries. Like other agricultural products, cacao experiences highs and lows in the world market. A rise in demand or a decrease in production drives prices up. But when cacao prices fall, it can devastate entire countries. What you buy and where it comes from makes a difference: no one wants to think that a human rights violation was involved in creating the delicious snack they’re enjoying. You can help by buying chocolate that’s certified fair trade and shade-grown–not only do these niche manufacturers generally pay a higher price for their beans to ensure higher quality which means a higher standard of life for the people growing it and the animals living nearby, but you’ll also be eating better chocolate made by people who don’t want to stuff it full of palm oils and other cheap additives. It’s win-win!

Chocolate: The Exhibition opened my eyes to the wider world of chocolate, and it’s a great reminder to savor it rather than take it for granted.

Nom or Vom: C is for Chocolate Chip Cookie Water

sparkling chocolate chip cookie water

Presented for your approval: Chocolate Chip Cookie Sparking Water, the beverage that will probably make you wish you’d spent your money on an actual cookie instead. I watched a video of a man trying this and he described it as “not the worst I’ve ever had in my life…but it’s pretty close” and “I don’t know if I would call it chocolate chip. I remember in grade school when I did this science experiment thing where we had owl pellets…that owl pellet is what this kind of tastes like.”

Pros: It’s zero calorie so it could be an all the time food as opposed to real cookies which are now a “sometimes food”, way easier than liquefying cookies to make into your own cookie beverage, this could be the first time in your life that you’ve hydrated with cookies, technically chocolate in drinking form is trying it the way it used to be consumed

Cons: No self-respecting Maya would drink this, there’s no way the aftertaste on this is anything other than regret, fake chocolate is nigh-universally awful, post-sparkling beverage burps allowing you to taste it again and again and again, did you not see that it tastes like owl pellets?

Would you drink chocolate chip cookie water?

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A Tour of the Theo Chocolate Factory

welcome to the theo tour The air outside the Theo chocolate factory smells amazing, like the entirety of Fremont has been enrobed in chocolate.  It’s entirely possible that’s why the topiary dinosaur across the street is missing its face: it sniffed the air so hard that its nose plain fell off. That’s how good the air smells. There is no Theo waiting inside the door to show you around like Willy Wonka–Theo Chocolate isn’t named after a person, but rather the Theobroma Cacao plant from which their beans are derived. Theo is a bean-to-bar chocolate company, which means that while they don’t grow their own plants (save for one sad Charlie Brownesque tree in the factory), they do roast the beans themselves so they have more control over the end result. theo chocolate factory tour On the tour, after you are properly outfitted for food safety (hairnets, beard nets, and for those who didn’t wear closed-toe shoes, foot nets), they lead you into a room where they educate you a little about where the beans come from, how the pods grow, and let you taste some of the bars they sell, from dark to milk, with a variety of inclusions. Visitors were encouraged to ask any questions that they might have at this stage, and our delightfully smart-assed tour guide did his best to answer them all. One kid asked if the cacao pod shown to the group was real, and the guide looked aghast. “Of course it’s real! I don’t even know where I’d get a fake one, maybe I just need to go to the fake cacao pod section of Spencer Gifts…” He was not able to answer my question, which was “What does the cacao fruit taste like?” He said he’d heard it tastes really sweet, somewhat like cotton candy, and then suggested that when we fill out our reviews of the tour that since he wasn’t able to answer this question, that maybe it would be helpful to send him to Equador to plant some cacao trees. So, here goes: Dear Theo Chocolate, I think it would be a good idea to send your employees to help work on the cacao farms and plant some trees so that they may have a richer understanding of the entire process. Dear tour guide: If you get to go now, you’re welcome, and please send a postcard. welcome to the theo factory After we’d tried the chocolate and asked our preliminary questions, we were taken into the factory proper and taught more about what the bean-to-bar process entails. Once the pods have been harvested, the high sugar content in the fruit ferments starting some kind of enzyme process (SCIENCE! As long as you ask no follow-up questions whatsoever, yes, I understand this process completely.) on their way to the Theo factory. Once the beans arrive, they’re run through the destoning machine, which cleans the exterior of the beans. The beans are then roasted, which is the process by which the beans develop their flavor–a result of the Maillard reaction, which is the term for when amino acids and sugars chemically react and give browned foods their desirable flavor characteristics.  The reaction creates new flavor compounds that wouldn’t otherwise be present. Think browned butter, seared steaks, and toast, and how differently they taste from regular butter, boiled meat, and soft fresh bread. That same reaction is happening in the cacao bean, helping to make it delicious. From there, the beans are deposited into the winnower, which separates the husks from the cocoa nibs.I keep wanting to refer to the winnower as the “widowmaker”, which may mean I need to step away from the schlocky movies and terrible fantasy books for a while. unroasted beans roasting today cocoa bean bag wall We tried a few nibs, and at this point, they mostly taste like really bitter chocolate. The guide told us that another guide says to his groups that they have a hint of banana flavor, but that he doesn’t like to influence people’s opinions–it’s funny, as soon as he said “banana”, I could taste banana. The brain is weird, powerful, and highly suggestible! After the beans go through the winnower, the husks are discarded, and the nibs are ground into a paste by a stone mill. The paste is then shuttled through a ball mill, which reduces the size of the cocoa solids, creating the smooth texture that we associate with chocolate. This is the point at which the mixture can be pressed to separate the chocolate liquor from the cocoa butter to make a variety of different products–however, since Theo makes chocolate bars, that doesn’t happen here. tour group mmmm liquor tanks Once the chocolate has a smooth texture, it’s put into a mixer with sugar. If they’re making milk chocolate,  milk powder is added as well. I had always thought that the factories added fresh milk or cream to create milk chocolate, but in retrospect, milk powder makes a lot more sense since it’s shelf stable and consistent by volume and whatnot. After the chocolate is done in the mixer, it’s sent to the refiner, which reduces the particle size of the sugar to give it an even smoother texture. After the refiner, it’s put into a conche, which reduces acid through circulation and oxidation and promotes further flavor development, and once it’s out of the conche, it’s at this point that it’s basically a river of drinkable delicious chocolate. chocolate holding tank From the conche, the chocolate goes to a holding tank, where it may sit for a little while or get used up in a day, depending on production. Once they’re ready to use the chocolate, it goes into a tempering machine. Tempering is what gives chocolate its glossy finish. If it isn’t tempered properly, it will look dull with a whitish film and may not be solid at room temperature. After the chocolate has been tempered, it’s ready for any inclusions: mint, chai, curry, bacon…whatever they want to add. The inclusions are weighed before being added so that they’re consistent from bar to bar, from batch to batch. If the chocolate’s destiny is to be made into a bar, the chocolate is then poured by hand into the depositer, which pours the chocolate precisely into molds. The molds are placed in a cooling tunnel which keeps the fats bonded and happy while the bars harden. Once they’re solidified, they go through the wrapping machine which packages them for sale. If the chocolate is not going into a bar, after the tempering machine, it’s sent off into the kitchen for other delicious Theo products: s’mores, truffles, toffee, and more. I had an earl grey truffle that was out of this world, and I brought some home and shared them with Jason even though I really, really, really didn’t want to. That’s how good they were, my inner Gollum wanted to hoard them away.

burning sugar for trufflesBurning sugar to top truffles

theo kitchen making ganacheMaking ganache

After the tour wraps up, you’re given an “I took the tour” bar of chocolate and set loose in the Theo factory store, where you can buy all of the chocolate you ever wanted, and try even more samples if you’re up for it. Not only do they have their entire retail line for sale, but they also have a number of small experimental batches, like basil chocolate, and their seasonal sweets and truffles as well.  For $10, you could hardly spend a better hour if you’re at all interested in the chocolate-making process!

Nom or Vom: A chocolate covered onion on my belt, which was the style at the time

chocolate covered onionChocolate Onions by Andrew Watson

What the hell, Philadelphia? What the hell? My gut did a flop just contemplating this photo of a real thing that’s sold in Chocolate by Mueller: chocolate covered onions. They’ve sold this ‘treat’ in their shop since the flipping 1980s, so either someone is buying them or these are 30+ year old onions languishing in their display window. I don’t know which would be worse.

 

Pros: Uh…chocolate is involved? Maybe it’s a sweet onion? It has sprinkles? I got nothin’.

Cons: Sweet baby jesus they didn’t even remove the papery skin, chocolate and onion together, there’s no way this is delicious

Would you eat a chocolate covered onion?

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