Rancho Quemado to Cocobel
The cocoa pods are manually harvested on the estate, cracked open in a manner so that no beans are damaged. Beans and pulp are removed and put into a cedar box to ferment or "sweat" --as our trinbago farmers would say. The beans are turned occasionally so that they ferment evenly over about 5-7 days. The temperature should be monitored during fermentation to get consistency in the quality--but most farmers in Trinidad and Tobago still go by the bean's physical appearance as their experience has taught them.
Drying is the next stage. The beans are spread out on the wooden floor of the drying shed and the traditional rolling roof is pulled back so that the sun can dry them out naturally. Some estates use dryers or heat lamps to help with the process if it is rainy and there’s not enough sunlight as can happen quite often with our rainforest climate. The beans need to be dried until the moisture level is about 7% so that they do not get mouldy. Humidity is the biggest challenge during the time it takes to get from estate to chocolate maker.
After drying, some farmers will "dance" the cocoa, the traditional way of polishing the beans. Some water is splashed onto the pile of dry beans and the farmers will dance bare footed so that the beans rub together. This gives them a nice sheen which makes them more attractive to the buyer.
The chocolate maker’s task starts with sorting through the beans and removing any stones, other debris, or defective beans.
The beans are then roasted to develop the flavour. Every chocolate maker has his or her own method (which includes temperature and time) to develop the flavor to her taste. Indeed, every variety of cacao bean has a nature of its own and requires a different roast to bring out its best taste. Sometimes there are even variations from harvest to harvest that require a good intuition for roasting to suit!
After roasting, the beans are cracked and winnowed. Winnowing removes the outer husk from the bean. Then the beans are broken up into little pieces called nibs. These nibs are ground to a liquid called cocoa liquor which is usually about 50% cocoa butter. The chocolate maker can choose to separate the fat via a cocoa press to separate the cocoa butter and cocoa powder, or to use the liquor to make chocolate.
The liquor is mixed with sugar for dark chocolate or with powdered milk, cocoa butter and sugar for milk chocolate and then refined for some days until the taste and texture are satisfactory to the maker. Conching is the stage where the fine particles are rounded out and the flavour is further developed; it is a slow lapping and mixing of the chocolate. You want to mellow out any notes that are too acidic; at the same time, over refining and conching can also destroy some of the fine, delicate flavours in our cocoa. The chocolate maker knows what notes are desirable and will conche until it is satisfactory. This could take days.
After all that, the chocolate has to be tempered in order to be moulded into bars, bonbons or other chocolate related confections and pastries. Tempering is the process of crystallisation of the cocoa butter in the chocolate which requires cooling down to a specific temperature and agitating the chocolate simultaneously before moulding or coating. Basically you are getting the cocoa butter crystals in a tight formation. A well-tempered chocolate has an attractive shine on the surface and gives that great snap when you break it.
Rancho Quemado Estate cocoa travels for 2 hours by truck from Rancho Quemado in deep south countryside to our workshop in the capital city of Port of Spain to be transformed into 72% single estate bars, 65% single estate couverture and single estate milk and white chocolate! YUM!