He was dressed in flowing white robes when I walked in. Well, ok a white chocolate spattered lab coat, and a hair net. He whirled around the factory kitchen conferring with an apprentice here, checking temperatures there. He was Greg Hook, the alchemist of Chocolate Arts himself. This Wizard in White could tell the temperature of chocolate just by looking at it.
“Linnaeus theobroma. It means ‘food of the gods’. Chocolate was used in ancient Aztec ceremonies,” Greg said to me. My apprenticeship had begun.
He handed me a hair net and ushered me over to a large table where he began to slice long slabs of white chocolate.
“To master chocolate, you have to have a high level of awareness because the medium changes all the time,” he said. “For three quarters of the year you can work a certain way, then in the heat of summer you have to work differently.”
Greg had learned to be cool even during melt downs. Last summer one of his artistic seasonal sculptures had melted in their store window. At the moment, he was working on an Easter display; the first one had been knocked over by a chocolate dazed customer. But in a few hours there would be another giant hollow Easter egg in the window, filled with chocolate bunnies, chicks and scrumptious eggs, all surrounded by a white picket fence.
“The chocolate is my teacher,” said Greg. “And to be a good student, you have to get into the flow and discover what the chocolate will allow you to do. It just keeps evolving.”
Working with chocolate was not only an art for this chocolatier, it was a spiritual experience.
“Eat this,” my chocolate guru waved a truffle under my nose. “It’s our newest creation, a milk chocolate caramel truffle. It’s unusual because most truffles use dark chocolate for the shell.”
I was a milk chocolate fanatic. I have not yet gone over to the dark side even though I know it’s the chocolate with over 70% cocoa solids that is best for your heart and soul and teeth. I bit into the bonbon and gulped half of it down. Divine.
“Stop! That is not how you eat a truffle!” Greg exclaimed. I had failed the truffle test.
“You must put the whole truffle into your mouth at once to truly experience it – “ in its fullest and most holistic sense,” he said. “Close your eyes, then feel the crunch of the outer shell, the bitterness of the cocoa powder coating, the refined roasted chocolate flavor. Drown in the softness of the center, with its delicate caramel flavoring.”
“Yes Flow Master,” I said with humility. “Could I try another – ¦please?”
“All in good time. Walk with me,” he said. “You must pay attention to the line, or the sugar in the chocolate can over-crystallize. Feel the flow.”
We walked slowly, meditatively along the row of gleaming stainless steel machinery; warm chocolate swirled in the mixers. One apprentice ladled the dark liquid into molds. I felt just like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory. I lifted my nose high in the air and sniffed the wonderful sweet smell of melting chocolate.
“If you don’t pay attention to chocolate, sooner or later it will make you cry.” I snapped to attention. The Flow Master pulled out a tray of chocolate shells.
“These are rejects,” he said. I leaned in closely to inspect the imperfections and saw none.
“Chocolates must have a natural, consistent color. Those made with inferior ingredients or a lack of precision will contain streaks or bubbles.” As with most artists, God was in the details for Greg too.
Most of the world’s chocolate is made from cheap beans called foresteros. They are mixed with finer flavour beans like the criollo or trinitario. It’s like the difference between the inferior robusta coffee beans and the more refined arabica beans.
But never mind that, it was time for my next truffle feeding.
“This is the Rustica,” Greg said.
I popped the whole thing in my mouth, closed my eyes and bit down. There was an explosion of flavour, a hit of chocolate, both bitter and sweet, then the gooeyness of the honey and cinnamon center. I was a slave to chocolate. And I wasn’t alone.
Aly Diabate doesn’t even know what chocolate is. He was forced into slavery at age 11 to harvest cocoa beans on the Ivory Coast. He lived on a diet of corn paste and bananas, and was exposed to harmful pesticides and sharp machetes. According to a 2002 U.S. report, there were about 300,000 child slaves working on cocoa farms in the region. Most of the cocoa beans that go into Nestle, Mars and Hershey candy bars – “ and probably most of the Easter and Christmas candy you buy for your kids – “ comes from the Ivory Coast. Greg was right; chocolate could make you cry.
When the child slavery issue came to light in 2001, the U.S. Congress told American chocolate companies to clean up their act by July of 2005 or they would legislate a certification program to ensure that the chocolate industry was environmentally friendly and safe for children. Some of the congressional protocol requirements have been met. Cadbury took the lead, securing Fair Trade certification for its United Kingdom products. Advocates hope that Hershey will follow suit in the U.S. But clearly the industry has not gone far enough. In a September 2009 press release, Global Exchange announced that INTERPOL had just rescued 54 child slaves from cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast.
Greg is careful about the chocolate he uses. One of the main manufacturers he buys from, Valrhona, makes some of the most expensive chocolate in the world and is known for its pure ethics. He also uses local and organic ingredients whenever possible.
The Flow Master held out my final truffle. A dark chocolate miracle encrusted with vanilla sugar. Truly food for the gods.
“The Madagascar,” Greg said, placing the ganache on my tongue with priestly precision.
Crunch went the sugary shell, and then the rich, tangy Manjari dark chocolate merged with the delicate vanilla bean center. I was in the flow.
“Oh my God,” I said. “This isn’t chocolate, it is a spiritual experience.”
“Exactly,” said Greg. “If you’re going to drown, drown in the Ganges.”
Amen! I leaned back to savour the lingering chocolate on my palate and bumped into the cutting table. The new Easter display crashed to the floor.
Chocolate made both Greg and I cry that day.
Excerpt from Something’s Rotten in Compost City, A Plot to Take Over the Food You Eat by Spring Gillard. This essay was first broadcast on CBC’s North by Northwest, Easter Sunday, 2005.