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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Chocolate cycle: From bean to bar to blog

Where does chocolate come from? Does it grow on trees complete with a metallic wrapper to protect it?

My chocolate education started on the streets of Ecuador, when I almost ran over two people and a whole lot of beans on my bicycle. One half of the road was taken up with cacao beans being dried by the sun's rays.


Jumping back a step in the production process, chocolate is a product of the cacao bean which grows in pod-like fruits on cacao trees. Monkeys were the first to discover the cacao plant but they only ate the thick, fruity pulp that surrounds the beans and spat out the bitter seeds. But mother nature's master plan meant that they did us the favour of distributing seeds all over Mesoamerica.


But back to the beans on the road, once the pods are cut open with a machete and the pulp removed, drying the cacao is an important part of the process. Under-dry them and the chocolate will be sour and over-dry them and it will be bitter. Drying the beans takes 3-6 days depending on the weather and the beans have to be rotated to ensure they dry evenly. Next they are packed up and shipped to the chocolate manufacturers and that's where San Francisco comes in.

My chocolate education continued in the north of America when I went on a 3 hour gourmet walk. I listened and learned as we ate our way around a new wave of artisan chocolatiers.

Once the chocolatiers receive the beans they roast them and winnow away the shell so you're just left with the nib. (A nutty bitter flaky texture.) The cocoa butter is then pressed out to make it more stable and workable and many boutiques add it back in later. Others make good money by selling the cocoa butter on for use in cosmetics.

First we learned about TCHO: The chocolate scientists. A Nasa Space Shuttle software developer and the co-founders of Wired magazine got together to solve a chocolate conundrum:

How do you make dark chocolate melt in the mouth like its milky counterpart?

With their powers combined they found the answer and partnered directly with farmers to improve growing, fermentation and drying methods and to create a better tasting chocolate.

Goodie  Shwarf

Going by the number of boutique chocolatiers we visited in a 5 block radius, San Franciscans don't mind paying for the good stuff.

To legally call something chocolate it only has to have 10% cacao, which means 90% sugar.

The samples we tried were mostly 70-80% cacao. I found that when it's that highly concentrated not only does it taste better, you don't need to eat as much of it. Plus the good news is chocolate is actually a fruit, so the more cacao, the better.

Chocs  Chocs2

From what I observed, one of the big problems is how disconnected the people growing the beans and the people eating the chocolate bars have become. If you ask a child where does chocolate come from they would probably answer, "the shop". Most of the workers in cacao growing areas have never had the opportunity to taste the product that is eventually produced and sold.

Recently CNN did an expose on Chocolate Child Labour and since then the Hershey company, has pledged $10 million over the next five years to educate West African cocoa farmers on improving their trade and combating child labor.

Then there's the issue of farming sustainability. A cacao plant can produce fruit for more than 25 years, but it's most productive from years 8-12. Even then they only get 2 pounds of beans per tree at it's peak which means you need a hell of a lot of trees. The minimal money farmers receive is not incentive enough for the time-consuming work of replanting as their trees die off and waiting three to five years for a new crop to mature.

ATTENTION CHOCOHOLICS: The world could run out of affordable chocolate within 20 years as farmers abandon their crops.

We made seven stops on our tour and got to experiment and taste a range of dark chocolate, ganaches and truffles, including champagne truffles (Oprah's faves) and a hot chocolate to warm us on a cold and rainy day.


The Champagne truffle is the dusty white looking chocolate in the bag.

Armed with first-hand knowledge of where it comes from and how it's made, the experience of eating good quality chocolate becomes a whole lot sweeter. Rather than buying cheap, sugar-filled bars made in a non-sustainable manner, from now on I will seek out smaller quantities of the good stuff.

Thanks to my passionate and quirky chocolate-loving guide Nicole. For more info on gourmet tours visit: 


If you want to read more about food and San Francisco you might like more story about the Jerk's of Cole Valley.

Latest Poll Results
New York: What will Indiana June do in the big apple?
21% Track down and visit Oliver Jeffers:
Renowned Children's storybook writer & illustrator
11% Walk the High Line:
A linear park built on a 1.45-mile section of the elevated NY Central Railroad 
11% Be a NYC detective for a day: 
Part game, theatre and tour to discover some of NYC's most off-the-beaten path spots
13% Explore the City Hall Subway Station: 
Abandoned & hidden from the public for 60 years
12% Flying trapeze class:
Hone her circus skills learning how to fly on a trapeze 
30% NZ Flag + Statue of Liberty:
Bodypaint the NZ flag on her body and go up the Statue of Liberty
2% Go to Queens and find a 'Nanny' sound-alike:
Video someone with the nanny accent saying "noo Zealand, i love that place"
Voting closed | 204 VOTES
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