IRVINE, Calif. October, 2012— “Cocoa beans were used as currency by the ancient Mayans. A rabbit cost 10 beans and a prostitute 100,” says Francois Mellet, Qzina corporate pastry chef.
The ancient Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs cultivated the trees, which probably originated in South America’s tropical rainforests, and spread north to Mexico where it was referred to as “food of the gods.” It was the basis for a thick, unsweetened drink seasoned with spices and reserved for royalty. However, priests, decorated soldiers and some merchants have enjoyed the beverage on special occasions.
When the Spanish brought the cocoa home, sugar and cinnamon were added to make an expensive delicious drink that grew into a fad loved by European aristocracy.
Mellet leads the Bean to Bar experience at the Qzina Institute in Irvine, a new facility designed as a showroom, training center, and research and development facility. Qzina sells chocolate, dessert and pastry ingredients as well as equipment from all the major international and national brands.
At the day-long class we learn how much work and numerous processes the beans go through to become a premier bar of chocolate.
Beginning with 16 1/2 pounds we observe all the steps to end with 13 pounds without having to return for a second day. The approximate 20% weight loss are the shells of the cocoa beans.
The class, created by Qzina, is a learning experience for the experts at the company as much as it for customers.
Qzina Specialty Foods founder and CEO Richard Foley says, “While our customers are going through the Bean-to-Bar, we are trying new techniques constantly, like roasting the beans shorter or longer to see what makes a difference in flavor.”
The chocolate is sourced from Trinidad, Tobago, Ecuador, Peru and Hawaii.
On our day, beans from Marañón Canyon of Peru were transformed into bars of chocolate with a flavor to satisfy any chocolate addict’s obsession. The beans from that area are 40 percent rare white beans and come from a genetic stock thought to be extinct.
Visiting a banana plantation they found trees with the football-sized pods growing on the trunks between the taller banana trees. Out of curiosity, Pearson sent a leaf sample to the USDA near Washington, DC. He was told his beans DNA matched Pure Nacional, a bean grown in neighboring Ecuador.
“ ‘Nacional’ dominated the world’s fine chocolate market for over 100 years before it was destroyed by disease in 1916,” Pearson says.
After learning more, Pearson and partner Brian Horsley set up production in Peru to ensure quality control in the remote region. Attention is given to how the trees are pruned, the fermentation, drying and sorting. Beans are examined before and after fermentation, before and after drying and any misshapen beans are sorted out and removed.
“We have women sort out the flats and smalls (shape and size). If you think of two steaks on the BBQ, one half ounce and the other 8 ounces in size, the small one will dry out if cooked the same length of time,” he said to explain how the chocolate flavor would be negatively affected. Pearson likes to provide young women, some of whom are single moms, an opportunity to work. Marañón beans are dried on an elevated table and turned frequently, several times a day.
The chocolate we process is called Fortunato No. 4, named after the farm owner on whose farm the beans were found.
At Qzina we see the equally sized beans roast. Mellet explains the roasting sterilizes the bean to kill any fungi, develop the flavor, and help separate the shell from the inner bean. He pulled out a few to sample after 45 minutes and checked again every five or ten minutes. He opened them and Pearson was happy to spot white beans among the dark.
White beans are less bitter and therefore more desirable. Grafting is used to increase the number of white Nacional beans.
Roasting is followed by a process called winnowing to remove the husks or shells. The outer shells are cracked and blown away to leave cocoa nibs.
Next, sugar is added to the cocoa nibs and ground. After three rounds of grinding the thick paste becomes chocolate liquor. Then the chocolate is poured into a conch to mix, aerate and further develop the flavor. This can take from a few hours to days, this size batch takes about eight hours.
Almost the last step is tempering, lasting another 20 to 30 minutes This process raises and lowers the temperature to crystallize the cocoa butter into chocolate that is stable with a glossy snap.
Lastly, Mellet pressed the chocolate into molds. His quick practiced movements wasted no precious bit of the fine couverture.
Yes, we were given samples. The chocolate is 68%, with intense chocolate taste, silky smooth with no bitterness or acidic bite. No vanilla or ohter flavoring is needed.
The Marañón blog is filled with information, including expert reviews and enthusiasts’ remarks. “If you had sent me diamonds and emeralds I could not be happier! I think wars could be prevented and marriages preserved with gifts such as this!” comments fan Carrie L. Chisholm scribing Fortunato No.4 on Marañón Chocolate’s blog.
Pearson explains how differently other chocolate is handled. “Most farmers rarely turn their beans. Big chocolate buys the beans based on moisture content, roasts them at very high temperatures to burn out the bad flavors from poor fermenting and drying, then add artificial flavors.”
“Remember, to be called chocolate in the US requires only 14 to 15 percent beans,” he adds.
No one will ever confuse Marañón chocolate with a run of the mill candy bar.
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