A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends drew my attention to a Hotel Chocolat chocolate-making course. And I don't mean taking bars of chocolate and turning them into truffles (although that's also fun). I mean taking actual cocoa beans and turning them into a recognisable food product.
I've long been fascinated with the processes of food production, so I knew a little bit about the theory, but the chance to get some hands-on experience was just too tempting. Especially since the course was buy-one-get-one-free for the whole of July (now also extended into August). I would have felt £65 was a little pricey for a 2-hour course, but split between two of us it felt more reasonable.
So Katie and I headed down to London.
The day started off with a little unplanned excitement when our train was cancelled, but fortunately I have a major paranoia about travel plans going awry, so I'd booked us on one an hour earlier than we really needed, and we got there with about two minutes to spare.
We were welcomed with glasses of prosecco and tasters of chocolate, to give everyone the chance to experience a few different varieties of cocoa as chocolatier Bethany talked us through the finer points of cocoa production.
And then we got the chance to eat roasted cocoa beans, which are surprisingly nutty in flavour. When you crush them between your fingers, the scent of chocolate really comes out, but the taste isn't quite what you would expect. I found myself wishing I had a salad to garnish.
One of the more surprising highlights of the afternoon was the chance to try the fruit of a cocoa pod. Usually, this is left to ferment around the beans, but it is also edible in its own right. It doesn't have much structural integrity after the seeds have been removed, so it was served in a glass. Despite the strange appearance, it was quite nice, tasting similar to lychee with a hint of lemon.
The process of transforming cocoa nibs into chocolate is called conching, and consists of grinding the cocoa for many hours until the cocoa butter melts out and the mixture becomes smooth. In industrial production, this is achieved with a large, purpose-built machine:
For our afternoon's activity, however, we were going to replicate the process with a pestle and mortar. Propped up with a little more prosecco, and helped out by pre-warming of the mortar, we got busy grinding until the cocoa (and later, the sugar) was reduced to a shiny paste.