One man's quest for cacao knowledge.
Some foods taste better with a French accent. Why bring your best chocolate to the table when you can mange à la table? And it was a long empty rectangular table that beckoned the fruits and confections of our labors at Montreal’s Academie du Chocolat, an 11,000-square-foot oasis of bliss, where last month I took three two-day chocolate-making classes that ranged from beginner (Discovering Chocolate) to advanced (Expertise) under the skilled eyes of chef Laurent Pages and Technical Director Philippe Vancayseele.
This is one of 16 company locations – Chicago is the other one in North America – that traces its lineage from Charles Barry’s search in Africa for cacao beans in 1842. Today, the Callebaut/Cacao Barry academies are located in traditional European centers such as Switzerland, Belgium and France, but also in growing markets such as India, Japan, China, the UAE, Brazil and Singapore.
Though most of the courses are offered in French, these three were all taught in English, and though they numbered no more than a dozen per class, the students came from the West (Vancouver and Alaska), Far East (South Korea), South America (Peru) and a pair of adoptees, a delightful father/son team of seasoned chocolatiers from Germany who now have shops in Ottawa and Toronto. I was the least experienced, and most-easily awed, of the group.
The facility, located in the Rosemont section of town on Rue Molson, is a bit remote, but it includes a lobby with a coffee and tea bar, a back meeting room, a large airy waiting area to relax during lunch and gaze at the bags of chocolate callets on the shelves or the large chocolate sculptures in front of them. In the back sits a meeting room for presentations of On Noir, an initiative that takes dedicated chocolatiers abroad to create their own unique chocolate from the beans.
Down the hall, away from the offices, we pass the tiered auditorium with a video screen and the large presentation table on the way to the lab that houses work stations, dry and refrigerated storage shelves, three large tempering machines filled with melted white, milk and dark chocolates, all flowing on conveyors and perfuming the room with scented temptations. Behind closed doors are molds of varied shapes and sizes to create bonbons.
During our sessions there, we made snowball cardamom, nutmeg banana, apricot speculoos, honey and rosemary and a recipe with wildberries that included blackcurrant juice, dried juniper berries, raspberry liqueur and a bay leaf. These were not your Uncle Norm’s Hershey bars.
In the first course we practiced different ways to pre-crystalize chocolate in order to obtain the proper sheen and hardness. The vats there kept the melted material at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees F). We watched Laurent use his palette knife and spatula to manipulate the crystals on a work table before returning that liquid into the vat of melted chocolate. I thought of stenographers who can type at the speed of someone else’s voice because they are total command of their task. “Easy peasy,” he said, which is an even more charming phrase when spoken with a French accent. Just add a few ‘eaux’ letters for decoration. He also showed the grating method, adding callets and stirring to create the desired consistency, and the third method, the stop-and-go turns of 10-12 seconds in the microwave, his least favored approach, but one that beginning chocolatiers might find easiest at home. He showed us deliberately over-crystalized chocolate that was either dull, flaky or grey. “It still tastes good,” he said, “but a Maserati doesn’t have to look like a jeep, you know . . .” He explained how to cool chocolate or bring it back to temperature if the crystallization wasn’t right and how to store it in a cool, dark area free from light, air and smells. So the jacket pocket is definitely out.
Our second instructor, Philippe, had a creativity and expertise to match his patience. “Slowly by slowly,” he often advised us. His work has taken him to 65 countries, he is a regular on Brazilian TV, and his grandmother once cooked for the king of his native Belgium. “Chocolate is the ultimate diplomatic passport,” he says. “It makes others happy. It has a special power. I would try to understand it, but it is better to eat it.”
Unlike many cooking classes, in which students divide up and prepare only certain dishes, all the students here watched and participated in making each truffle or bon bon, so nobody was left to wonder how a masterpiece materialized at the other end of the room. We painted molds with colored cocoa butter, which, when inverted, produced wonderful designs on the outer shells.
We practiced the three-step process for creating bonbons: first, pouring the melted chocolate into the molds, and then allowing that chocolate to set at room temperature; adding the filling – usually from a piping bag – to just the right level so that it doesn’t overflow the molds or leave so much room that air will form between layers; and closing the mold with a covering layer, with ample setting time after each step.
For the untrained, the simple step of turning the molds upside-down in order to allow excess chocolate to drip out, while scraping the underside at a straight edge, can be daunting. And don’t drop the mold as the slippery, melted, chocolate begins to coat your hands. “Technique is more important than equipment,” Philippe told us. “Invest in equipment proportional (that’s right) for your product. Don’t spend a million dollars on a state-of-the-art machine to make ten bonbons a year.”
It’s all second-nature for the seasoned chocolatier such as Philippe, who may as well be brushing his teeth or tying his shoes. He calls out the temperature to the Celsius degree without checking, aware that he has hit the desired viscosity just by the look and feel of the flowing chocolate against the spatula in his hands. Watching him perform is like eyeing a cellist rolling his eyes back in his head as he strings his instrument, checking for the perfect pitch with a sixth sense. Being around good people makes you better, and you start to up your game by osmosis. Two days of each class is not nearly enough to turn the steps into second nature, but it is impossible not to learn or want to know more. On our final day of each course, we aligned our chocolates onto the long auditorium table, posed for pictures and gazed at the variety of treats we created. “Your masterpieces,” Philippe said, clapping and smiling, as he reveled in the joys of his students’ spoils.
Merci, Professeur et tres bien, Barry!
Veteran sportswriter Brian Cazeneuve is obsessed with chocolate. My Chocolate Journey explores and reflects his quest to discover and learn about all things cacao.