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More reason to love chocolate—as if you needed it.

February 10, 2010

In honor of Valentine’s Day and all things chocolate, I’m posting an article I wrote in February ’07 for my ANG Newspapers “Quick Cuisine” column. After the piece ran, I got an email from Guittard complimenting me on my accuracy describing the chocolate-making process. Apparently, it’s rare for someone who’s not a choclatier to get the details so right!

Chocolate is an amazing thing.

I always knew this culinarily because there’s nothing that elicits oohs and aahs like serving an incredible chocolate dessert.

And I always knew it emotionally because there’s nothing that makes me feel indulged, treated, and happy like eating chocolate.

I even knew it intellectually. Because I know what it takes for chocolate to go from bean to bar.

But it wasn’t until I had the delicious fortune to visit the Guittard Chocolate Company factory in Burlingame, where I saw the journey with my own eyes, that I really got it in my gut: chocolate is an amazing, miraculous thing.

(Guittard isn’t open to the public, but about this time last year, a few Copia co-workers and I got a private tour from Gary Guittard himself, whose great-grandfather opened Guittard Chocolate in San Francisco in 1868.)

Guittard explained how chocolate starts out in the form of a cacao tree, growing twenty degrees either side of the equator, usually on a small family farm. After harvest, the seeds and pulp of the football-shaped fruit are fermented for a few days to develop the flavor. The seeds, or beans, are then dried, packed into burlap bags, and shipped off to a chocolate factory.

Our tour started in the farthest corner of the building, where a worker with a hook knife slit those recently-arrived bags open and emptied them into a grate in the floor. The air was warm and, as you might imagine, dripping with the scent of chocolate. Those same cocoa beans would come out the other end—seemingly miles of chugging, grunting machines, hoses, and conveyer belts later—in the miraculous form of chocolate bars.

From the grate in the floor, the beans got sucked into one of several roasters, including one that was used at Guittard’s original Sansome Street factory.

Next, the beans went to the winnower, separating the outer papery hulls from the nutmeat, if you will, inside. (The hulls used to be merely a byproduct, but now they’re a product in themselves, cocoa mulch, available at most every nursery. I recommend it for the simple reason that it’ll make your garden smell like chocolate!)

We moved on to watch a series of machines grind, grind, and grind the cocoa nibs, as the hull-less beans are called—and which are also a finished product nowadays at some chocolate companies—into an increasingly smooth, peanut buttery paste called cocoa liquor.

The cocoa liquor—almost equal parts cocoa butter and cocoa solids—continued to scurry its way along all manner of chutes and ladders. (At one point we had to beware of an occasional plop! of chocolate from above. Imagine chocolate falling from the sky!) Along the way, it was blended with more cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, milk, and/or other ingredients, depending on the type of chocolate being made that day.

Eventually, we climbed a set of steep steps to look down into perhaps the most mysterious machine of all: the concher. Outfitted with a barrage of stirring mechanisms and baffles, the concher is a sort of mixer that, depending on time, temperature, and air, helps enhance the inherent qualities of the chocolate. Some of Guittard’s conching formulas have been handed down over four generations.

Finally, we watched as the chocolate was tempered, a process of heating, cooling, then slightly heating again that makes the chocolate solidify with a beautiful shiny surface and helps prevent bloom, the powdery look that you’ll sometimes see on older chocolate. Then the chocolate was poured into molds and cooled.

On the day of my visit, huge ten-pound bars were rolling off the end of the line. After all that, I definitely had a ten-pound chocolate craving. But hoping to be invited back again, I settled for a tasting from Guittard’s artisan line, E. Guittard. Which was a very fine treat indeed.

And so, to review: chocolate is harvested, fermented, dried, packed, shipped, unpacked, roasted, ground, ground, ground, blended, conched, tempered, molded, cooled, unmolded, packaged, and shipped. It is truly a miracle of invention and innovation—and quite ridiculous, if you think about it.

I left Guittard in a chocolate-induced sensory overload, feeling more awed by the stuff than ever. I also left confirmed in my belief that while there’s no such thing as bad chocolate, good chocolate is ten thousand times better.

And so, this Valentine’s Day, as you enjoy treats housed in heart-shaped boxes, take a moment to appreciate all that goes into making them. From subtropical forest to your local candy counter, chocolate makes an incredible journey, one that includes countless growers, manufacturers, inventors, experimenters, artisans, and machinery. It’s a wonder anybody ever figured it out.

And thank God, or whoever, they did.

Chocolate BarkBittersweet Chocolate Bark with Candied Ginger and Mixed Nuts

This isn’t the recipe that originally ran with the above story, but it’s one of my favorite, easy-to-make chocolate treats, perfect for Valentine’s Day gift-giving.

Makes about 1 1/4 pounds

2/3 cup (about 3 1/2 ounces) coarsely chopped candied, sugared, or crystallized ginger (see below)

2/3 cup (about 3 ounces) roasted, salted mixed nuts

12 ounces good-quality bittersweet (55 to 70% cacao) chocolate, chopped

Line a large rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with foil. In a medium bowl, combine the ginger and nuts. Set aside.

In a double boiler or a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Stir in half of the ginger-and-nut mixture, then spread the entire chocolate mixture onto the baking sheet, spreading it into a roughly 9- by 13-inch rectangle, or in to the baking pan. Sprinkle the  remaining ginger-and-nut mixture on top and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Cut or break the bark into pieces. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Note: Candied ginger can be found in the spice section of most major supermarkets, but it’s much less expensive if you find it in the Asian or ethnic section or with the bulk foods.

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