Deep in the Amazon rainforest, wild Beniano cocoa trees grow, and have done so for centuries. Once a year the cocoa pickers of Baures, Bolivia travel into the dense jungle to gather the ripe yellow cocoa pods.
He sits on the forest floor in his rubber boots. His head is covered by a turquoise scarf and he’s wearing a heavy jacket – in the rainforest it’s better to be too hot than exposed to mosquitoes. His cheek is bulging from a generous wad of coca leaves.
A couple of precise chops from the machete cracks open a cocoa pod. A pair of burly hands dig out the beans and throw away the empty pod.
The coca-chewing man is just one of the roughly 200 cocoa pickers that inhabit the jungle in Beni, Bolivia during the harvest season. They spend two months finding and picking the wild cocoa. The hard psychical labour is reserved for the men, while the women stay in Baures and handle the cocoa once it is harvested.
Fermentation keeps cocoa from spoiling, and preserves the fruity flavour. The sweet, white flesh melts away and leaves behind a naked bean.
In a humid and warm jungle everything rots exceptionally fast. That goes for cocoa too. In order to preserve the beans and enhance their flavour, they are fermented immediately after harvest. 20 to 30 kilos are placed in a suspended basket and covered by banana or palm leaves.
During fermentation, the white flesh covering the cocoa slowly melts away, exposing the naked bean.
Beniano beans are small and fatty and the fermentation is therefore shorter – only 3 days compared to 4-5 days for larger beans. A shorter fermentation preserves fruity aromas and gives Oialla its distinct notes of berries and red fruit.
Drying cocoa lowers the moisture content and makes it virtually imperishable. But beware of the heat.
The female workers spread out the freshly fermented beans on a black nylon tarp suspended on wooden pillars. Traditionally the beans dry on cow hide in direct sunlight, but the suspension ensures that water evaporates from both sides. Another tarp hangs above to protect them from direct sunlight and overheating. The workers turn the beans and monitor the temperature. If the beans get too hot, they begin to roast and develop off-flavours. If they dry too fast or roast, the beans become too acidic.
Hard to stay dry in the rainforest
Fermented beans contain roughly 60% water and are still very susceptible to mould. The moisture content needs to be lowered to around 7%. If they dry too much, they become brittle and break, if they dry too little, they rot. In the final stages, the beans are transferred to straw mats in direct sunlight. The workers rake cocoa frequently so they dry evenly. It takes 3-4 days to dry the beans depending on the weather. It’s called a rainforest for a reason and keeping the beans dry isn’t an easy task. The rain comes hard and fast. The workers cover the beans and wait it out.
Roasting cocoa takes skill and a great deal of patience
There isn’t a right or a wrong way to roast cocoa – It all depends on the beans and the chocolatier. This is where the chocolate maker shows his artistic abilities and sense of flavour. There are many variables – temperature, roasting time, the bean’s fat content and the type of roaster. It’s basically trial and error when learning to roast a new bean, or making a new type of chocolate.
“I spent 8 months roasting and tasting beans when we developed Oialla 78%. And the roast is very different from Oialla 72%,” says Rasmus Bo Bojesen. Oialla 72% has a rounded curve - slowly heated and slowly cooled, while Oialla 78% has a more dramatic roasting profile with several quick heating and cooling cycles.
Cocoa is sensitive
While coffee is roasted at high temperatures, around 200°C, cocoa is much more sensitive. The temperatures for Oialla span from 100°C to 160°C. Oialla is roasted in a ball roaster - a rotating metal cylinder that tumbles the beans while roasting them with hot air. Although there are many different types of roasters, the ball roaster is the best choice for quality cocoa.
Preserving all the flavours in high quality beans such as Criollo and Beniano requires constant attention. They are tasted continuously during the roasting process – especially during the final stages. Because of the high fat content, the beans continue to roast even after the machine stops. Most cocoa beans contain 48-52% fat, while Beniano beans hold 63-65%. Therefore the oils cook much longer and the roast has to be stopped long before peak flavour is reached. It requires great skill and a lot of samples to determine whether the beans are ready or not. After roasting, the beans are unloaded and cooled by large fans.
The conch transforms roasted cocoa and sugar into shiny, fragrant chocolate. A process that usually takes more than 24 hours
Renowned Swiss chocolatier Rodolphe Lindt invented conching in 1879. According to legend he left his chocolate mixer running for an entire weekend by mistake. Monday morning he realised his blunder. But 48 hours of mixing hadn’t burned or ruined the chocolate. It was shiny, fragrant and tasted like no other chocolate. He had unintentionally invented conching.
Whether the story is true or not, is inconsequential. Today conching is a crucial step in chocolate making. The name refers to the first conching machines that resembled conches in shape.
Enter the conch
The roasted beans are crushed and then mixed with sugar in the conch. It grinds and kneads the nibs and sugar until the mass becomes liquid. The friction heats the chocolate mass to around 45°C. It is a fairly time consuming process – Oialla is conched for 28-32 hours straight. So why spend all that time kneading chocolate?
Conching removes bitterness, enhances flavours and improves texture. Cocoa butter melts at body temperature, but conching binds the fat crystals with the cocoa solids. Well-conched chocolate won’t melt in your hand and delivers a sharp snap when you bite into it.
Tempering is the process of heating chocolate to a series of precisely defined temperatures in order to get perfectly crisp chocolate with a glossy finish. It is a must when making pralines or coating cakes. Poorly tempered chocolate is grainy, pale and not very appetizing.