Saturday, September 28, 2013
From bean to belly: Dallasite Zach Townsend explains chocolate processing
The title of his business, Pure Chocolate Desserts by Zach, is more than a minute indicator of Zach Townsend’s affection for chocolate. For more than two decades, in fact, he has traveled throughout France sampling the desserts of each region. He contributed Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Rose’s Heavenly Cakes (the 2010 IACP Cookbook of the Year) and worked with the renowned Miyuki Watanabe of Gérard Mulot Patisserie for more than two years.
All that to say, Zach knows chocolate and loves to share his knowledge with others – hence the classes he frequently hosts. We asked Zach to explain the history and process of turning a barely-edible bean into what we know as chocolate, and what makes a chocolate better than another, or for that matter, different at all. Given chocolate’s intensive processes and history (people have been eating it for somewhere around 4,000 years) the process of harvesting and preparing the cocoa bean is a story all its own.
Entree Dallas: Thanks for chatting with us, Zach. As we start a bit of a journey through the world of chocolate, is there a baseline definition for what ‘chocolate’ is?
Zach Townsend: That’s a very good question, and I’m not sure how to begin to answer it! In its most basic form it could just be considered a confection, but it’s a confection with an extremely interesting history. I was recently reading something about researchers finding traces of cacao in some sort of vessel around 1100 BC.
So it’s a confection, but it’s also one of the world’s most interesting confections in that it contains the most complex vegetable fat, which is cocoa butter. That makes it really unique in terms of processing it, and it’s where the challenge begins with chocolatiers – how to work with this cocoa butter, which is also one of the more expensive natural products out there – like vanilla and saffron, in that respect.
So how does it begin?
Chocolate begins with the fruit of the tree Theobroma Cacao. There are different species of Theobroma, but only the Theobroma Cacao produces this type of fruit. It’s got its origins in the Amazon Basin – that’s really the only place it grows wild. It’s so heavily cultivated around the world, but on the outskirts of Chile, Venezuela – thats kind of the heart of where it began.
So it begins with this bean, which is a football-shaped pod and is considered a fruit. They can be be six to 12 inches long, and they’re fat because they’ve got a lot of moisture in them. There are three different races Theobroma Cacao – Forestero, Trinitario and Criollo, then you have a lot of subspecies that are derived from that. The most prized is Criollo – and it’s usually the most expensive. Criollo has a very low-acid, earthy flavor to it, whereas the Forestero, which is the most common, has a more acidic flavor to it. It’s easier to grow, though, because it’s got a heartier fruit to it. That’s why with Forestero – when you talk about mass chocolate makers like Cadbury, Hershey’s, Mars – they are purchasing at least 90 percent of their chocolates from plantations that grow Forestero beans. Trinitario came about when they did a cross between Criollo and Forestero offer the unique flavors of Criollo with the heartiness of a Forestero in the 1800s.
Okay, so they’ve got this bean that looks like a football. What next?
What they do is break the pod open, take out this big hunk of white, slimy-looking custard stuff called baba, and encased in that is somewhere between 40-50 seeds, depending on the race of chocolate. So that baba breaks down and they put these pods into buckets or bins on the plantation, let them sit there for five to 10 days on average and during that time they will ferment. They let that break down, and that has certain enzymes in it, and that reacts to what is called the cotyledon, which is the leaf inside and where all the tannins are located. They say that the fermentation process is where the bean begins to express its first natural flavors.
After the fermentation, the beans go through a drying process. Beans that are dried in the sun actually have been shown to have a better flavor than beans that have been dried artificially. Some plantations may smoke dry them or take them through an air dryer, but they say that the flavor never really develops like it would develop if it were dried naturally. It’s kind of like if you tried to dry out grapes for wine artificially – you can draw a lot of parallels between how wine profiles and chocolate profiles. In my wine and chocolate-pairing class we talk a little about that.
So with chocolate, you can take into consideration terrior and things of that nature, like wine?
There are so many parallels. Just like you can have a vintage wine or a grand cru or a single origin, you can also blend beans, and chocolate makers will buy particular ones and come up with their own particular flavor profiles. Alan MacClure at Patric is one of many chocolate makers that does that. Others may say ‘You know what? I’m only going to buy these Criollo beans from this plantation, and that will make it estate grade,' – which is one of many different grades of chocolate. Being a chocolate maker has to be one of the most exotic jobs there, and I don’t think that many people appreciate it. I am a huge fan of Shawn Askinosie and Alan and Colin Gasko from Rogue Chocolatier and what they’re doing in terms of understanding the entire process.
All that to say, chocolate is very controversial – it has the whole dark side to it, especially in North Africa. Because chocolate only grows in general between 20 degrees north and south of the Equator, it’s actually a third-world country product like coffee. So the people who are out there cutting it off the trees are not the people who are enjoying the final product – the beans are sold, and they don’t really get an opportunity to understand what it’s turning into. There are chocolate makers that are trying to change that; they make the chocolates in the country where it’s grown. The cause is noble because it creates more jobs and opportunities in that country.
So the whole direct trade and fair trade practices are huge issues. Some of the really good chocolate makers in America like Shawn really emphasize the direct trade versus fair trade, because fair trade still has a lot of people in between. Shawn travels South America and Africa and works with those guys and he has something that’s called A Stake in the Outcome, which is a program where he ensures that the people are getting fair wages, are being treated well, understand the chocolate process, and he buys the beans from them. They can really appreciate what they’re doing and help the chocolate maker make better chocolate. Because once you have the pod off that tree, that’s when the process starts, and it really helps if the people doing the work understand the entire process and what to do correctly.
So the plantation doesn't just grow, it's got a pretty heavy hand in the first stages of the processing as well ...
It doesn’t really become a commodity on the market until it’s packed in this big, burlap sack and sold just like coffee beans. That’s not to say there aren’t some chocolate makers out there that might be buying raw cacao, but I can’t imagine a chocolate maker that would try to do that on its own, because that’s what the plantations are all about – it’s what they do.
So where are the largest-producing countries of these fermented and dried beans?
Cacao has really specific growing requirements – it’s a tropical, rainforest tree that loves the shade and wants to grow under the canopy, likes a certain amount of rainfall, doesn’t like to drop below about 68 degrees and it doesn’t like to grow too high in elevation. But if you go out to places like South Africa, you’ll find them growing out in the sun – what they’ve done is grafted these trees and cultivated them enough to where they’re getting a little more resilient. And that’s necessary – prices per pound and ounce are already expensive, but because of the demand of BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – prices are going to go up exponentially over the next several decades. Ninety percent of all cacao that is sold throughout the world is from Northern Africa, and the Number One producing country is Côte d’Ivoire and then Number Two is Ghana. And then the third largest is Indonesia. They’re growing the Forestero, which is the least prized.
Personally, though, I’d most like to go to Venezuela, though, or Costa Rica and chop off some Criollo Beans and watch the process firsthand.
And then, of course, start the process of turning it into chocolate?
Pegasus News Content partner - Entree Dallas