Found Chocolaterie Castelain in Chateauneuf du Pape, deep in the heart of Provence, France. Ok, I lied a little, but doesn’t everybody. Not about the Provence part, but the finding it part. Actually, a friend found it and managed to sober up a group of choco-holics enough to get us to chocolate land.
Came as a surprise. Not the sobering up part. Unintended, but it happens.
The chocolate and France part. After all, where do you think of when you think of chocolate? Belgium? Yes. Switzerland? Yes. Germany? Of course. Which country produces the most chocolate? Pennsylvanians know the answer and I can explain it with one word: Hersey.
But France? Mais oui! A chocolate paradise in Provence. Should have expected it in this bastion of creativity. Van Gogh country. Cézanne country. A wonderland of olives and cheeses and especially wines. What? You don’t count making cheeses and wine creative? Every wine and cheese is different, with different flavors. Or olives? Just try curing them yourself without swearing and smashing crockery on the kitchen wall.
Chocolate is just one more form of creativity, with endless variations. It’s one of the most complicated of foods. Start with the Cocoa beans, most of which are grown in West Africa. Picture men and women hacking pods off trees with machetes. Picture people barely making a living….wait a sec. A large Swiss corporation, Nestle formed the World Cocoa Foundation to see that farmers get properly paid for their labor and to ensure healthy farming practices that mean your grandchildren will still be biting into chocolate bars. Next time you take a bite, give Nestle a shout out.
Ok, you’re saying, but what’s the big deal? The cocoa beans are squashed and then you have chocolate, right? Think so? Check my simple (I know my readers) synopsis of the bean to bar process:
Pods are harvested with machetes sharp enough to shave your beard, and the beans and pulp are scooped out. Just as with wine, climate and soil have a lot to do with the flavor of the final product.
Beans and pulp are put in a vat to ferment. (with lots of hands-on help from the farmers)
Next step is drying, then roasting.
Winnowing separates the beans from their shells.
After fine grinding and conching (surface scraping and coco-butter separation) you get chocolate liquor, with the solids being chocolate and the liquid being cocoa butter. Here’s where the quality comes in. First class producers will add some cocoa butter back into their chocolate to smooth it out. Eat some Belgian chocolate and you’ll see what I mean about smooth. Cheap producers will add lesser oils. Hint: read the list of ingredients.
Now that you’re an expert on Chocolate, let’s head to a fabulous chocolate maker in Provence. You’ll learn all I’ve written and more importantly, get to make your own, plus gobble chocolate until your blood sugar level goes in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The chef and his assistant led us down the chocolate road. First thing to remember is there are essentially three types of chocolate: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate, the latter being only coco butter, milk and sugar. So is white chocolate really chocolate? The other two you can figure out yourself. Dark chocolate has a million variations, depending on where the beans came from and how much sugar is added. The most chocolate of chocolates is 99% chocolate, with the percentage printed on the wrapper displaying how much coco bean (by weight) is in the bar. As the percentage of chocolate decreases, of course the amount of sugar and coco butter increases.
There’s nothing like hands-on to teach you how difficult a skill…any skill…is. We poured chocolate into molds to create hollow hearts, plastic pastry bags to make chocolate drops, and dipped fruits and caramels. The chef made it look exceedingly easy and I suppose if you make it your life’s work to get good at something it does get easy. For me it was messy work, but we had a great instructor and came away with bags of chocolate.
Here’s a pairing tip for you: Dark chocolate goes well with Guinness. I know that will come in handy. It did for me, as I reconciled alcohol and gluttony.
Tip number two: If you bring bags of chocolate home, you will eat them, especially if they come from Chocolaterie Cstalain.. Be warned and stand by to loosen your belt, or just switch to the chocolate- Guinness fitness diet.