For this holiday season, my gift to you is a trip to a chocolate factory - perhaps not as imaginative as Willy Wonka's, but far tastier as a REAL chocolate factory!
Theo Chocolate in Seattle is extraordinary both in the chocolate it produces and in the fact that it is one of the US's first fair trade AND organic providers.
For $6, they provide a sample-abundant, informative tour of the factory that details the complete chocolate making process, from the growth of the chocolate plant (theobroma, literally meaning "the food of the gods" - hence the name of the company) to the creation and packaging of the confections. Plus there are a lot of samples. Did I mention that there are samples of chocolate?
Theo partners with growers in Madagascar, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic to bring this excellent chocolate to us; I learned that 70% of the world's chocolate originates in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, but Theo does not import chocolate from these countries because they have not found a partner there who could qualify as fair trade (read: slavery and child labor). Interesting to know, I thought.
I also was fascinated by this stuff called mucilage that fills the cacao pods and surrounds the cacao beans; it looks like white mucus and is necessary for the fermentation process of the beans. After the pods are harvested from the trees (which may be done year-round, since the trees are in tropical environments), the mucilage and the beans within it are spread out in the open air so that the sugar in the mucilage can ferment - before chocolate was ever made, this was fermented to make alcoholic drinks. The fermented beans are then gathered and sent to the Theo factory in Seattle in burlap bags. The bags, in good green practice, are then sold or made into tote bags for purchase at the store.
Fermented cacao beans before processing
After the beans are received, they are checked for quality of fermentation - when opened, the insides should look cracked.
The machine pictured above hulls them, and then they get roasted, producing the cacao nibs that are all the rage in baking right now. The leftover shells are called chocolate mulch, which can actually be used as mulch (but not eaten). The nibs are not sweet, but a slightly bitter crunch of dark chocolate.
This machine then grinds up the nibs and heats them, so that they come out in the liquid paste that you can just see issuing from the funnel. From this point forward, the chocolate is shuttled from step to step in double-layer pipes, in which the outer pipe is filled with warm water to keep the chocolate in the inner pipe at the correct temperature to remain liquid. A little Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory-esque, although the chocolate is not visible.
After running through machines that add the sugar content and aerate the chocolate (a step that removes the natural acidity of the chocolate), the chocolate ends up in these big vats.
Lucky people like this lady in the confection kitchen next to the factory room get to make caramels and other good things for the interior of the chocolates. All of these "inclusions" are made on site.
This dude works the inclusions into the chocolate, the bars get cooled, and then packaged up for all of us to eat!
Seriously, they let you taste EVERYTHING before purchasing it - and I'm not ashamed to say that I ate as many of the samples as I wanted, since I spent $50 in the store...
Ghost chili = hottest chili in existence. Yowsa!
The best news I can give you is that you can order Theo chocolate online, or use their Store Locator to find a provider near you. Yes, it costs more than most large chocolate distributors, but you will be paying for high quality flavor that is free of pesticides and fillers like soy lecithin...and for which we can reasonably hope that no person was oppressed.