The dark brown, pleasantly bitter, chemically complex substance we know of as chocolate bears little resemblance to the pulp-surrounded seeds of the cocoa plant from which it is produced. One would never suspect that one could be derived from the other.
-- Sophie and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate
In a space inside Almquist Lumber in Arcata, Adam Dick and Dustin Taylor, the chocolate makers behind Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate, produce chocolate bars starting from cacao beans. What is the process they follow? Before delving into the answer, let us look at what happens before Adam and Dustin arrive on the stage.
In the beginning there is the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, "a spindly understory tree" which, with very few exceptions, "refuses to bear fruit outside a band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator. Nor is it happy within this band of the tropics if the altitude is so high as to result in temperatures that fall below 60 degrees F or 16 degrees C. If the climate is one with a pronounced dry season, irrigation is a necessity for cacao demands year-round moisture." (Sophie and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate.)
The fruit of the cacao tree is called a cacao pod: It contains almond-shaped seeds, called beans, surrounded by a juicy pulp. The Coes explain that once the pods are opened, and the beans and their surrounding pulp extracted, there are four principal steps which must be taken to produce the cacao "nibs" (kernels) that are to be ground into chocolate. These are: (1) fermentation, (2) drying, (3) roasting (or toasting) and (4) winnowing. No matter what the level of technology, this sequence has been in force for at least three millennia and still is followed in the modern world.
Soon after the cacao pods are harvested, seeds and pulp are extracted and piled up. Fermentation ensues and lasts several days. Fermentation comprises various chemical and biological processes, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article.
Suffice here to say that, "Cacao fermentation is a fermentation of the pulp, not the beans, but it transforms the beans as well ... . Right out of the pod, the bean is astringent, bitter, and essentially aroma-less ... . Properly conducted fermentation converts the astringent but bland beans into vessels laden with desirable flavors and flavor precursors." (Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking.)
Once the fermentation is complete, the seeds are dried in the sun, cleaned, bagged, then transported to locations where they will be processed.
Shipped from cacao-growing lands, the cacao beans arrive at Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate. There, they start their journey to become chocolate by being roasted (to develop their flavor and aroma) in a large toaster oven fitted with a rotating drum (to keep the beans moving). Temperature and duration of roasting are the first of the chocolate maker's secrets and vary based on the bean variety and provenance.
The roasted cacao beans are cracked into pieces and then winnowed -- in this case, in a machine built by Adam and Dustin, who have put their carpentry skills to use in various ways within their production space. The result of the winnowing process is a separation of the cacao nibs from the chaff. The cacao bean husks can be composted, while the nibs proceed to the next step where the protagonist is the mélangeur.
The mélangeur is a stone mill made up of a granite base and two granite rolls rotating over it. The mill grinds the cocoa nibs into fine particles too small for the tongue to detect. It also grinds the sugar that Adam and Dustin add to the nibs about an hour into the grinding process. The mixture turns first into a paste, then into a creamy fluid that smells intensely of chocolate. It takes at least two days for the process to complete, so it is really a labor of love and not of rush.
The exact timing of the process is bean-dependent and a bit of a trade secret. When they get a new kind of cacao bean, Adam and Dustin make a few test batches to find the preferred parameters for the various steps and the preferred balance between cacao and sugar. The percentage of cacao is then printed on the bar label -- for example, 75 percent; the remainder is sugar.
After the mélangeur has completed its task, Adam and Dustin pour the chocolate into chafing dish inserts for a well-deserved rest, one that leads to flavor maturation.
We now reach the final phase of the process: After they cut the chocolate into chunks and pre-melt it in a double boiler, Adam and Dustin put it into the temperer, a non-temperamental machine that knows exactly what to do: Bring the chocolate to about 120 degrees F, then cool it to about 85-86 degrees, then warm it up again slightly (to 89 degrees), while stirring it constantly.
This creates "Form V " crystals of cocoa butter. Cacao nibs are about 55 percent fat, called cocoa butter. After leaving the mélangeur, the cocoa butter solidifies into a network of unstable crystals. Tempering realigns the fat molecules into a crystalline structure (termed Form V) that is more stable and that has the desired melting point. Untempered chocolate has a dull finish, while tempered chocolate has a warm surface shine.
Fluid chocolate taken from the temperer is poured into plastic molds, which are then shaken lightly on a vibrating table to release air bubbles. Then, the chocolate is cooled. Once set, Adam and Dustin take each bar out of the mold and dress it with its final attire, golden foil and elegant paper circled by a wrap-around label.
The tempering process has given another quality to the chocolate bar: When you exert expert pressure on it, you hear a sharp snap as the bar breaks crisply into two pieces. As you slowly savor a small piece, you can reflect on this tidbit as well:
"Dark chocolate is an incredibly complex substance, known to contain more than 400 and possibly as many as 500 compounds (which is why it has never been synthesized)." Sophie and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate
Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate is located at 5301 Boyd Rd. Arcata, and on the Web at www.dicktaylorchocolate.com.