The Making of Gourmet Chocolate
Ever wonder what went into that gourmet chocolate gift box you received this Easter? If you’ve ever been curious at the life of gourmet chocolates, from its humble beginnings as cocoa beans to its decadent finale as chocolate truffles, we’ve got the answer to satisfy your curiosity (and perhaps fuel your cravings).
Humble beginnings: Cocoa trees and beans
Just as every chicken must begin as an egg, every gourmet chocolate gift box has to begin with a cocoa tree. Cocoa trees are tropical plants and can only grow within 20 degrees of the Equator. One cocoa tree has the ability to produce over 6,000 flowers each year. But these trees often don’t begin bearing fruit until they’re six to eight years old, with the exception of certain hybrid trees that can begin bearing fruit as early as three years of age.
Once the cocoa pods become ripe, they can be harvested. Since the trees will produce pods continuously throughout the year, there are sure to be pods of varying ripeness n each tree. As such, harvesting is most often done by hand with machetes to chop the pods from the trees. This generally occurs twice each year. The exact time of the harvests will vary from region to region, but regardless of the time of year, the process of turning these alien-shaped pods into chocolate begins immediately. To begin the magical transformation, the pods are cut open and the white pulp is scooped out. Inside this pulp reside the cocoa beans. With its fruity flavor infused with subtle chocolate notes, this pulp can be used to make drinks or deserts.
Once scraped from the pods, the beans and pulp are allowed to ferment in baskets. Fermentation lasts from two to eight days and is essential to mellow the bitter flavor of the beans. It also helps impart the fruity undertones of the pulp into the finished product.
Once they’ve fermented, the beans are spread out to dry, most often in direct sunlight. Finally, these fermented and dried beans are packaged and shipped to their next destination: the chocolate manufacturer.
Magical transformations: Turning beans into cocoa powder
In terms of net cocoa imports, the U.S. is the world leader, accounting for a whopping 20.96% of all cocoa imports worldwide. When our imported beans arrive, they are roasted by the chocolate manufacturer to bring out their flavor and color. How long the beans will spend roasting and the temperature at which they’ll bake depends on the type of bean involved and their moisture level.
The roasted beans are moved to a winnower, a machine designed to remove the shells from the beans, leaving us with only the essentials: the “nibs.” These nibs are ground into a thick paste known as chocolate liquor. Not to be mistaken with alcohol, this virgin liquor forms the foundation of all chocolate products, from pure dark chocolate to the truffles inside your gourmet chocolate gift box.
The liquor becomes “presscake” after the excess cocoa butter is pressed out. Next comes pulverization to create cocoa powder.
Cocoa roads diverge in the making: From cocoa powder to chocolates
At this stage, the life of our cocoa will differ depending on the quality of chocolate and plans for the finished product. If the cocoa is of low quality, it’ll likely be mixed with vegetable fats, flavorings, and sugar to become your generic chocolate bar. If it’s of a higher quality, however, it may be re-added to the cocoa liquor before mixing with sugar, vanilla, or milk.
This new and improved chocolate creation will be sent through a series of rollers to smooth it out and, finally, onto the conching machine. Conching is the last step to determine the flavor and texture of the chocolates for your gourmet chocolate gift box. Called conching after the seashell design it was originally used to create, this machine will knead and massage the chocolates for anywhere from a few hours to several days. The result of this process is to smooth the chocolate and mellow any lingering acidic undertones.
Conched chocolate is tempered by cooling it to a precise temperature that creates the pretty sheen on smooth chocolate bars. From here, it can then be poured into molds or wrapped and bundled into a gourmet chocolate gift box to be enjoyed by chocolate connoisseurs everywhere.