THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
If my chocolate dream was born at El Tesoro, it is the rhythmic thud of my conching tanks that is now the music of my life.
When I first put them in I could hardly bear to leave them, even at night, in case anything went wrong, and even now I have a sixth sense and often pop back to the factory in the middle of the night to fine tune something or another.
To start with everywhere I went, people said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t get into manufacturing,’ but the more they said this, the more I realised that I could never make the perfect chocolate unless I did. So I owe debts to a great many chocolate romantics who have helped me accumulate my beautiful old chocolate making machines. Now in fact I have many more machines than I actually use, but they will all have their day.
Every step of the way from bean to bar I concentrate on flavour and that does not change in the factory. The old original machines that I’ve sourced, may be smaller and slower than today’s modern machines – which are made for speed and commercial profitability – but they capture the subtle notes and unique flavours of our cacao in a way modern machines are unable to. I restored a traditional 1920s batch roaster and antique conching tanks from Spain that growl and groan and thud as they process the beans. It all takes time but great things are worth waiting for, and I won’t compromise on flavour.
Once the beans have been harvested, fermented and dried, they are packed into hessian sacks and transported directly by sea to our chocolate factory in Uffculme, Devon, in South West England. The moment they arrive they are checked and stored in a climate-controlled room at between 18 degrees.
Roasting enhances the rich flavour of the beans. After fermentation and drying, this is the next most important stage in developing their unique flavour and aroma. High quality beans don’t need heavy roasting, so I lightly roast ours in small batches for 20-30 minutes. Our 60 kilo ball roasting machine is almost a hundred years old and was produced by Victor Gruber from Bilbao, and it has recently been joined by a 250kg 1940’s Bath Sirocco one. A ball roaster is generally preferred by premium chocolate makers to a drum roaster or continuous roaster. The beans are roasted in small batches circulating with the hot air inside the ball. It is thought that the ball shape gives it more even roast and perhaps less bean breakages than other forms of roasting.
I winnow the beans – sucking the shell away – to leave the cacao nibs, the edible part of the bean. This is an important part of the manufacture of chocolate. If too much shell is left in the chocolate it will affect its flavour and fluidity.
Approximately 50% of each cacao nib is cocoa butter. This is valuable and often extracted for use in for instance, beauty products. But it is essential for fine cacao and chocolate, giving a rich, deep, smooth taste.
For the 100% cacao, I grind the nibs in a stone mill that crushes and aerates them to release the cocoa butter, which drops onto the rollers of our three-roller refiner. The rollers cooled by water to prevent overheating catch the smooth cacao liquid, draw it up and refines it. The refined liquid then cools into a firm mass falling gently off into containers, ready for conching.
Conching was one of the last major 19th century inventions in the making of modern chocolate. It is an essential process of agitating to drive off the volatiles so removing bitterness and bringing out the uniquely intense flavours of the cacao. My 100% cacao is gently conched in our 100-year-old longitudinal conching tanks. There are four conching tanks and the granite rollers in each tank weigh 150 kilos. They roll back and forth for more than eight days on their granite base, with the Indonesian bean taking the longest at up to 12 days.
To make the sweet chocolate for eating, I grind, refine and conch
following the principle of small batch making in our Lloveras conch refining machine. Only raw cane sugar and little natural cacao butter are added, to my own recipe. Not too much cocoa butter or the flavour of the cacao washes away too fast. Many chocolatiers add vanilla, but I find that it masks the more subtle flavour notes. It is useful if you want to smooth out the differences between beans to create a house style, but it is exactly these differences that I am celebrating. I do not use soya lecithin either. It leaves a certain taste and is not ultimately necessary if you make very fresh chocolate like we do.
While the beginning of this process is all the better for the old methods, when it comes to tempering and depositing, modern machines are invaluable as they give you complete control and consistency. Roasting and conching are more of an art – you need a feel for them – this is more of a science.
The tempering machine warms and cools the cacao mass to precise temperatures so that the butter and the solids set together perfectly, before being placed into the mould. Tempering also prevents bloom, which is when the butter and solids separate and the chocolate develops an uneven colour and texture. Then the chocolate goes through a depositor, which deposits exactly the right amount of chocolate into each mould. Now it needs to be cooled gently in a cooling tunnel, which shrinks it and allows it to come out of its mould easily. Finally, it is wrapped.
A piece of spare pipe on the Hacienda has proved my accidental hero and shaped the 100% cacao bar into a cylinder. When I couldn’t decide what to use as a mould for my earliest batches of cacao, I noticed a length of the pipe on the floor of my workshop. I chopped up all I had into moulds and it worked beautifully, I kept the shape when I started making it in Devon and it rolls out of the factory better. It’s great for grating and keeps better because it has a lot less surface area than a flat bar.
The cacao takes a long journey from ‘bean to bar’. It is not something that can be hurried. In the Chocolate Factory, my role as Chocolate Maker is simply to help each bean develop and show its unique flavour as completely as possible. You could say it is a celebration of cacao.