As most of you know, we get the majority of our chocolate from Belgium. It arrives in solid form, and then we melt it down to the right temperature to make all our delicious creations. But it all starts out solid. So a question I get asked fairly often is how our chocolate gets to us. How do we get Belgian chocolate and what do they do to it in Belgium that we don’t do at our store?
The process from turning cocoa from a bean into the smooth, solid form you’re familiar with is a very long and extensive process. The truth is that it requires special (expensive) machinery, a very technical process, and lots of knowledge, all just to get it to it’s bulk chocolate form. It’s basically an entirely different process from making confections, which is what we do. So most confectioners aren’t going to be able to run what is essentially two businesses. There are only a limited number of places that do have all the requirements to make bulk chocolate, one of them being Callebaut (pronounced cal-a-bow) which is the Belgian supplier we chose.
So what do they do over in Belgium?
Actually, it all starts in the tropics. If you’ve never met a convincing enough reason to save the rain forest, here’s one: it gives us chocolate. Cocoa starts out as a pod growing on a tree. The trees can grow all around the world, but they only grow in tropical regions 10 degrees above and below the equator. There are many different kinds of cocoa trees that can give the cocoa a distinct flavor and aroma.
Once the cocoa pods have been harvested (a challenge in itself), the pods are carefully broken open to reveal the pulp, which contains the beans. The beans then have to ferment, which usually takes around a week. This process removes excess pulp, as well as enhances the aroma of the chocolate. The beans are then spread out in the sun to dry for about six days. They are turned regularly during this period to even out the small retained moisture content. When the beans are dry, the farmers collect them in sacks and take them to be graded.
There are different grades of cocoa depending on the quality of the bean, usually having to do with the care during the fermentation and drying process. Then they are put in sacks on ships, and we finally arrive in Belgium.
The cocoa beans are cleaned and crushed. This releases what is called the “nib” from the outside shell. The nibs are then roasted, which releases chocolate’s signature aroma. Then the nibs are put into large grinders.
The heat created by the process melts the nibs down into what is called, “chocolate liquor,” but no, it’s not that kind of liquor. It’s the first and most raw liquid state of chocolate. There are two “pieces” to chocolate liquor--cocoa solids, and cocoa butter. Cocoa solids are what you might consider the nibs, although at the cocoa liquor state, they’ve become so mixed with the cocoa butter that they don’t look like anything solid. Cocoa butter is the natural fat that gets released from the nibs during the grinding process. To create the different types of chocolate (levels of dark, milk, etc.) you have to separate the cocoa solids from the cocoa butter, and then reintroduce them in the quantities you want to make the chocolate you need.
To do this the cocoa liquor has to be pressed through a microscopically fine sieve using high pressure. The cocoa butter is fine enough to go through, leaving the solids in what looks like a flattened cake. Then the cake can be removed for further grinding to make it finer for uses such as cocoa powder.
Finally, the recipe for chocolate comes in. Depending on the type, high or low amounts of cocoa solids will be added to cocoa butter, along with vanilla, sugar, and milk. Not all ingredients are used for all types of chocolate; the needed ingredients will be added, except for the cocoa butter, which comes later. Altogether it creates a kind of chocolate “dough.” This dough is then pressed between rollers to form a powder. This is not powder you can see, however. The particles are so small they are smaller than the spaces between your taste buds, which is why you only taste smooth chocolate when you’re really eating very, very, fine particles. This power is then kneaded in specially designed machines called “conches” for hours. The kneading friction creates heat, which then turns the powder into paste. The cocoa butter is then added to make the chocolate liquid. Once chocolate is in its liquid form, the hard part is over. It can then be poured into any mold desired, including eleven pound blocks convenient for shipping. This is how our chocolate comes to us from Callebaut. Once it’s in block form, it’s packaged and shipped (chilled of course) across the ocean and halfway across a continent, to Kansas City, MO. Then a refrigerated truck brings it to us.
Before we ever get to touch it, our chocolate has had a journey. Then comes the roughly eight hours we spend on each batch of truffles, or the many molds we have to fill, or the bars we stock with nuts, caramels, and fruits, along with all the other many items we create in our kitchen. That’s a lot of hands, over a long distance, and finally, a complicated confection. All to satisfy the seemingly universal craving that we humans have for that little delicious bean from the rain forest.