Tuesday, September 9, 2008

when it rains...make chocolate

So I may have mentioned to some of you my experiences in transforming the cacao grain I collect with my farm cooperative here in Togo. One day I decided that since they only sell the raw product that it would be great to try to transform the grain into real chocolate for a taste test of what they are currently producing. Basically, I decided to put myself in charge of "quality control." I mean why not experiment with a raw product, and if all goes well with what little equipment I have, I may even be able to teach others how to transform it into a marketable local delicacy.

The farmers I work with compose to form a cooperative of farmers from the plateau region of Togo. Together, they have the capacity to fulfill export demands by combining and stocking the grain that is harvested from all the members farms. They pack the fermented and dried cacao beans into burlap sacs which are weighed and then loaded into a truck to ship down to the port in Lome. The grain is sold based on weight. There are different grades given to the raw bean and most is determined by size and weight. A grain that is properly fermented and dried will give a solid weight based on moisture content. The farmers know how to sort out the good beans from the bad, although in the end, since they do not transform the bean into edible chocolate, thay have no context to determine the quality of the taste. Thus, that is where I come in. I have been know to have fine sensabilities in distinguishing the taste of fine chocolate. (or at least I love trying)

and so it goes...on y va!... It takes 3-5 years for a Cacao tree to produce the pods that carry the chocolate bean. White flowers sprout from the trunk and then turn into tiny pods that grow in size of up to 35cm long. (about the size of a small Nerf football) These pods start out as a pale green then turn to a golden yellow as well as shades of orange and red once they are ready to be harvested. The pods are harvested by knocking them down with a large sickle.

After enough pods are collected to fill a basin, they are taken to a spot where they are opened to remove the grain (the chocolate bean itself). In each pod you can find as many as 30-40 beans, all covered in a white pulp (which tasted much like lychees). After all the grain is removed from the pods, the empty pods are tossed aside and the beans are taken to a spot to be fermented and dried.Nothing is wasted: the split open pods are turned into compost to help the trees grow or are burned and the ash is used to make a kind of soap which is cheap and works really well.

The beans are then wrapped in banana leaves and left to ferment in the shade. Inside the leaf package, heat is trapped. The heat makes the pulp ferment, which means that bacteria and yeasts in the pulp multiply. This releases chemicals that give the cocoa beans their chocolatey flavor and color.

After a week of fermenting in banana leaves, the beans are spread out onto long bamboo tables and dried in the sun for up to 10 days. As the beans dry they shrink in size as they lose a lot of the water inside them. A good bean will still have some moisture content. You can break a bean in half to notice if it was well fermented. If a bean has a pale purple-redish tone on the inside then it has not been properly treated. Good beans have a nice dark brown-purple color inside.

In the first sttep of making chocolate, the cocoa beans go through a process of roasting and something called ‘winnowing’ to get rid of their shells. I laid the beans out in a single layer on a skillet over a low-med flame and continued to toss them until they started to pop and crackle. I tried not to burn the bean, only to heat it enough to be able to remove the hull (reddish brown shell) Another time I tried to cook them in my dutch oven to slowly heat them until they popped thier shells.

After roasting I rubbed the beans to remove the hulls and prepare them for grinding. There is also a fine film that is easily removed by shaking, or blowing the beans with a hot air dryer. This is called winnowing. What is then left is the cocoa nib.

I then took the cocoa nibs and grinded them with my small coffee grinder. The grinding tends to release the moisture in the beans, turning them into a paste. I had done this one time before and all I got was a gritty powder which indicated that the beans may not have been well fermented, with a lack of moisture content. After grinding to for a paste I heated it in a pan while adding a touch of water. I then returned it to the grinder to continue to minimize the grittiness. I repeated this step several times. Finally, I poured the mixture back into the pot to fondu and continued to add powdered milk, fine confectioners sugar,cocoa butter and a touch of vanilla while stirring over low heat. I added these things to taste, since I am only a novice, not quite a chocolate alchemist. Well, not yet.

I then seperated the mixture into a couple different bowls to create some "melanges" In one bowl I added peanut butter (made from scratch by the local marche mamas), in another, curry powder topped with roasted flaked coconut, and in the last, a touch of cayenne "piedmont" powder that is used locally to spice up almost any dish. (I once made a spicy rendition of snickerdoodles with it) I left one bowl to represent the natural "unaltered" taste. I then rolled them into truffle like balls to rest and harden.

ehh voila! enyo ento!...c'est bon!

Though the real process of transforming cacao beans into fine chocolate requires an amount of technical machinery unavailable to me here in Togo, in the end I was able to capture the taste of bitter dark chocolate..made from scratch and harvested by hand. It may not be as smooth and creamy with a nice waxy snap, but it works for me...esp since I made it. I am hoping to see if there will be a market for it in my village, if so, my groupment could start to sell some of the beans to women who will transform it for local sale. I brought the final product to the members at the office and it was a hit. They keep asking for more. So there's hope that there may be a market for it here in Togo. Although, what I need to concentrate more on is getting their office records better organized, potentially computerizing their bureau, and hoping that one day they will be able to become Fair Trade certified in coffee and cocoa. That idea has been difficult to propose (although, they are wanting to register) since it is a hard, lengthy process and difficult to finance in order to have the certifier come and verify. I hope I can get them on their way.

coming soon...Robusta Coffee..from berry to bean...to cup...


Andy HoboTraveler.com said...

Hello Megan, I have some fond memmories of Togo. I was in Togo for five months last year.

I discovered that eating Cacao Beans in Guatemala helped to reduce my appetite so I would lose weight.

If you see Michael from Ghana who sells clothes in Kpalime, say hello from Andre.

Blog of Andy HoboTraveler.com

Louise Traficanti said...

Hi Megan,

I really enjoyed your chocolate posting. Very intersting.

Your pictures were fantastic. You could definitely use them in your new book on cooking in Togo!

Thanks for continuing to post to your blog as it's nice to know that you are well.

Stay well,

Troy T.

Dave said...

Sounds delicious Megan!

Nathan L said...

Man, I've been following your blog since the day you left. Absolutely amazing read through. I'm in awe of your experiences in Togo and even more in awe of your cooking skills! I thought I was a resourceful cook, but man, you've got me beat hands down. Chocolate from scratch? Amazing. Well, here's to seeing you're well and good in a strange land, hope to see you again someday! Chicago reunion? Hell yeah.

Besos y abrazos de Albondón,