Wrist deep in chocolate at CocoaNymph
Learning the ropes of making chocolate while reaping the benefits of indulging in them. Chocolates so fine, I'll bet you can't eat just one.
Chocolate: a gesture of love, an aide for stress and a cure for PMS.
It may very well be the greatest thing that happened to the culinary world, with its versatility and its powerful affect on people. You can make drinking chocolate out of it, create fondue, put it in a bar, drizzle it on cheesecake, and coat almonds with it. But there's huge discrepancy in the qualities of chocolate that are on the market. If you go in to the supermarket and buy a Hershey's or Cadbury chocolate eat that and then delve in to artisan chocolate you'll wonder why you wasted the money and the calories on the former.
Chocolate shops producing handmade chocolates are sprouting up around the lower mainland, like garlic is sprouting up from my garden – scattered but growing.
CocoaNymph is a great example of one of these stores which has just recently opened their second location. The original shop is at West 10th and Alma and their new shop is on the Ontario bike route at Cambie. Rachel Sawatzky, the founder of CocoaNymph is passionate about every aspect of chocolate, from its flavour and depth, to its scientific components, it`s history and the effect it has on people.
She started making chocolate 10 years ago while studying Science at University. She has two bachelor degrees, one in microbiology, one in English literature, so it's interesting how making chocolate has now become her career, her passion and ultimately her life.
It began after she bought a Bon Appetit magazine with an issue on making chocolate as gifts. Intrigued she made chocolates for some of her friends, who were amazed and wanted to buy some from her, to give as gifts to their friends. Set on the fact that she wasn`t a businesswoman, she told them no and fully believed that the day would never come where she sold chocolates.
The following November she was calculating her expenses for tuition, rent and hydro. Realizing she had $80 to last through the winter, she did what “any reasonable person would do” and bought $80 worth of really good chocolate and decided to make and sell what she could.
“I wanted to sell 300 pieces and I think I ended up selling 3000 that year, without really trying. I was kind of astonished. I was making the ugliest chocolates in history, so I decided to try and find places where I could learn and train with others.”
Now she has trained all over the world: New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, Montreal, even Tuscany, where she trained with Tuscan chocolatiers in Florence and Pisa.
“I'm always learning, and I'm always teaching.” Rachel said with a smile.
This brings me to why I found myself in CocoaNymph. Rachel and her team offer a variety of classes, tastings and entertainment at the shop. They often have wine, beer and whiskey pairings with their chocolates as well as live music such as Kev Corbett, the Nova Scotian musician of the year notorious for his beautiful guitar playing. As much as I like tastings and music, I felt like getting my hands dirty so I opted for their Chocolate Lovers Workshop.
But before we started making and eating chocolates, Rachel taught us about the history and science of chocolate. The information shared was incredible and you could tell how knowledgeable she was on the subject while feeling the passion in her voice.
She moved to Vancouver in 2007 to work for another chocolate maker but had a terrible experience that left her wanting to cry every day she got home. She soon quit and decided to open her own place, on the premise that she could give people a better place to work and that “the culinary world doesn`t have to be like Gordon Ramsey`s Kitchen”.
“You can be friendly at work and still have a successful business. I`m really happy that I have great staff, and a great team; my stomach hurts almost every time I leave from them cracking me up.”
At CocoaNymph they`ve taught students from all over the world the skills that we were going to learn, particularly hand enrobing. All of the chocolates in their store are dipped in a vat of chocolate one by one, which is unique in the chocolatier business. If someone wants to learn how to do it, they go to CocoaNymph, regardless or where they`re situated. Many of the students in the class that day were from Vancouver, but they recently had their farthest interns coming from Singapore and Pakistan to learn with them.
In the past year Rachel has been learning how to make chocolate from the bean to the bar, going through all of the steps, because every step in the process matters to the end result. Next year she plans to launch chocolates she has made from the bean. According to her, 95% of chocolatiers usually start at the second to last step which is tempering.
In fine detail she explained the full process of making chocolate; I have summed it up, doing little justice to the knowledge learned that day.
After the cocoa beans have been harvested and picked, they are fermented in banana leaves before being packaged and shipped to where the chocolate is being produced. Upon getting there the beans are flash-roasted for sanitation purposes, and then slow roasted, like coffee, for flavour. After that they are winnowed, which means that the husks are removed to reveal the cocoa nibs.
So when do we get to the good stuff, you ask? Right now, in the blending process.
Most chocolate in the world is a combination of really good quality beans with lesser quality beans for economical reasons; this ensures that they have good flavour but also some bulk to them. Foil wrapped chocolate, like easter cream eggs, often has a high saturation of low quality beans in it, while chocolate artisans such as CocoaNymph, Thomas Haas, and Chocolate Arts have a higher saturation of fine quality beans.
After the blending of the beans is time for grinding. The fat (cocoa butter) will start to melt and the brown part (cocoa mass) of the cocoa bean will start to float. This is another dividing stage of artisans and large manufacturers. Manufacturers will press out the cocoa butter, seeing it as a money-maker, and sell the excess to be made in to moisturizer and cosmetics. Small manufacturers leave the cocoa ratio as nature intended and will never separate the butter from the mass and put it back together. You can taste this in every mouthful, as chocolate with higher fat content tends to be creamier and sweeter. A reason for this is that you need fat to carry the flavour molecules in to our taste buds, without that we can't taste all the richness and creaminess in the chocolate.
The next step in the process is conching which was created by Lindt and is the step that controls the bitterness level. Following that is tempering, the process of organizing the molecules in chocolate so they are ordered, thus making it shiny and appealing. Chocolate that has been brought out of temper will look whitish, like when you leave a chocolate bar in the sun, it melts and then solidifies again, resulting in poor taste and texture.
The last step in the process is shaping the chocolate. Rachel has shaped all sorts of things such as Landrovers and dresses, but most in the class kept in simple with balls, hearts, diamonds or flowers, and even that wasn't as easy as they made it look.
It was more in the decorating that we decided to get “fancy” with strawberry chocolate flakes, sprinkles, prints and cocoa powder.
Everyone in the class seemed to enjoy themselves from learning about chocolate, tasting different single origin chocolates and making our own truffles to take home. Many in the class had never tried single origin chocolates and their were mixed reviews on which ones were better than others. Like everything edible, one thing won’t suit everyone’s palate.
Rachel told us that the first single origin chocolate she ever tried was from the Philippines after Mt. Pinatubo erupted. "It tasted like smoke from all the volcanic ash in the air and in the soil and the water; it was delicious. We want to celebrate that different taste resulted in different origins. Why make everything the same?"
Just like wine grapes, cocoa beans take on the flavours of the region they are grown; But not everyone is like Rachel in wanting to celebrate those differences. Large manufactures often leave it in the conch for a long time so they all taste the same, regardless of the source or quality of the beans.
One thing that resonated with me as I left the class, was when Rachel said that her job is "creating addicts one chocolate at a time", referencing the stimulants in chocolates that give us that sense of well-being and that slight “high”. I couldn’t agree more, as on my bike ride home all I could think about was the truffle I had just ate and how I wanted to pull over and finish the whole box. I could even still taste the drinking chocolate in my mouth as I had sampled both the plain dark chocolate and the pepper drinking chocolate, both of which were delicious in their own way. Next on my list to try? The Marie Antoinnette inspired drinking chocolate made with almond milk and notes of lavender.