I still remember vividly the tsunami of chocolate envy that engulfed me when I first read Joanne Harris’ evocative description of Vianne Rocher’s “Grand Festival du Chocolat”. Her graphic description of sensuous encounters of the cocoa kind was almost too much for any chocolate-loving girl to endure. And so it was with a definite frisson of anticipation that I arrived in Pittenweem on Easter Monday to take part in a promisingly entitled “Chocolate Making Workshop” – just one of the events in Pittenweem’s Grand Festival of Chocolate.
The festival was the brainchild of Sophie Latinis, founder and chocolatier at The Pittenweem Chocolate Company and proprietor of the town’s Cocoa Tree Café. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone so well versed in chocolate etiquette, Sophie is Belgian by extraction. However, to lead the workshop, she had invited a fellow chocolatier, Charlotte Flower from Acharn near Aberfeldy. Charlotte is a weel kent face in Scottish chocolate circles, and her fascination with foraging means the flavour of her unique chocolates varies according to what is in season at any time, which could be rosemary, lavender, Scots Pine, wild mint or soft fruits, among others.
Perhaps ironically, one of the first things I discovered when I reported to Pittenweem Church Hall on Monday afternoon, resplendent in my favourite Snoopy apron, was that neither Sophie nor Charlotte is particularly fond of the term “chocolatier”, which they feel tends to conjure up connotations of – in their words – “men with extremely tall hats and egos to match.”
Job titles duly dispensed with, it was quickly evident to the four apprentice chocolatiers for the afternoon that our two mentors were knowledgeable and passionate about every conceivable aspect of chocolate, from pod to final product. Both spoke animatedly about the difficulties and benefits of encouraging larger chocolate companies to source their beans from Fair Trade producers. They also talked in reverent tones about their occasional sorties to the Salon de Chocolat in Paris, where the top chocolatiers (resplendent in their tall hats, bien sûr) battle it out in the various disciplines of the chocolate championships. To the four of us, sitting mesmerised by their ready flow of information, it all sounded like another world: a world with a chocolate centre…
Multifarious white, milk and dark chocolate concoctions were dotted around the kitchen in a cornucopia of pots, pans and other heating devices, so the temptation to dip one’s finger into the beckoning mixtures was at times excruciating. However, we all dutifully managed to retain our self-control for the first 10 minutes, as Charlotte and Sophie had stressed the importance of making sure that the chocolate was adequately “tempered” before we began working with it.
Charlotte explained: “Chocolate is an amazing substance, and cooking with it is like being in a scientific laboratory. If you look at chocolate under a microscope, you’ll see an emulsion comprised of a medium of cocoa butter in which are suspended small particles of cocoa solids and tiny particles of sugar.
“When cocoa butter crystallises,” she continued, “it can form into any one of 6–7 different structures, which makes it a rather fickle product to work with. If chocolate callets (like thick chocolate buttons to you and me) aren’t melted and cooled correctly, the chocolate won’t form the correct crystal structure.” Apparently, that means it won’t snap and – quelle horreur! – that it may well develop a bloom (the familiar unattractive grey residue that we sometimes see on chocolate).
We were shown how to test for correct tempering by pouring a sample of molten chocolate onto a strip of plastic to see how well it set – if the chocolate is correctly tempered, when it hardens it should be shiny and make a distinctive “snap” when broken in two. As it transpired, the melting chocolate wasn’t quite ready for our ministrations at that point, so instead we turned our eager attentions to the equally fascinating art of truffle making.
Charlotte produced several bowls of gorgeous ganache (a mixture of chocolate and cream) in a variety of flavours including plain dark chocolate, milk chocolate, chocolate ginger, and chocolate flavoured with lavender. She then demonstrated how to make a white chocolate ganache flavoured with real lemon zest. It looked utterly amazing, its rich, golden yellow colour being surpassed only by its tantalising lemon taste which transported one’s taste buds straight to Sicily.
As instructed, we each rolled ourselves a selection of “ganache balls” and once they had set firm, we dipped our truffles tentatively into bowls of different types of molten chocolate. Fortunately, we had been equipped with the requisite “dipping forks” for this precarious process and were able to remove all our mini-masterpieces safely without having to dive into the bowls of molten chocolate after them (although admittedly, that prospect was not an unpleasant one…).
Myriad sprinklings (ranging from crunchy strawberry balls to cocoa tips to slivers of caramel) were provided for decorative purposes, and we were also given tiny piping bags so we could add ornamentation in contrasting colours of chocolate. Truffles duly completed, we turned our attentions to making – and decorating – a bar of chocolate. This process began with the rather unlikely task of “polishing” the inside of the moulds with wads of cotton wool, as Charlotte warned us that any greasy fingerprint or other imperfection on the inside of the mould would spoil the shiny appearance of our finished bar.
Next we ran the moulds under the inviting fountain of milky brown chocolate emanating from the magic chocolate melting machine, and scraped off any excess before knocking the mould firmly (but carefully) on the table surface several times, to bring to the surface and burst any lurking air bubbles. Last but not least, there was another flurry of sprinkling as we “personalised” our bars with our choice of tempting toppings.
While the chocolate and truffles were setting, Sophie talked us through the many and complex processes involved in chocolate production, starting by showing us a genuine cocoa pod containing still damp cocoa beans (each pod contains around 30), which looked a far cry from the dried and roasted beans which she showed us next.
She explained that the beans are removed from the pod and then fermented (for anything from three to ten days, depending on the producers’ patience and schedule) before being dried, roasted and ground to create a cocoa paste. It was certainly mind-boggling to learn how many processes the humble cocoa bean undergoes before ending up as the melt-in-the-mouth chocolate we know and love. All of which brought us neatly to the culmination of the workshop: a chocolate tasting session featuring three different types of pure dark chocolate. Sophie forbade us to bite the chocolate samples, instructing us instead to allow each piece of chocolate to melt gradually on our tongue, so that we could pick out the characteristic flavours.
It goes without saying that I was in my element: talking about, working with and learning how to “taste” chocolate properly. There really was no better way for a self-confessed chocoholic to spend the afternoon of Easter Monday. However, sadly all good things must come to an end and before we knew it, it was time to pack our truffles proudly into smart golden boxes and slip our customised bars of chocolate into see-through cellophane sleeves. It had been a truly wonderful afternoon characterised by laughter, creativity and, above all, a shared passion for chocolate – Vianne Rocher would most certainly have approved.
This article has been submitted to Crail Food Festival by food, family and lifestyle blogger SquareSparrow. You can read more by visiting http://square-sparrow.blogspot.co.uk/ or join me on http://www.facebook.com/square.sparrow or send me a Tweet @SquareSparrow.