For those clinically addicted to chocolate, look away now, for yesterday I was shown around the chocolate factory I have often mentioned. Never seen so much chocolate. Literally mountains of the stuff: thick, rich, oozing, bitter sweet sex magic.
It’s part of my job believe it or not. After all those years of delivering letters, waiting in bars, driving vans around, data entry, warehouse picking, number crunching, watching time disappear out of the window. I finally get to do something useful. Trusted.
For the past five weeks I’ve been working at Valrhona, the high quality chocolate producer I wrote about in Lyon 20. I’ve been helping the cité du chocolat team prepare their guided tour they do around the factory for the tourists in summer. I’ve been given the job of making sure it makes sense. Yes, you may laugh.
Grind is not the same as crush. Mix is not the same as stir. A tube only becomes a pipe when it goes somewhere. Conching, winnowing and nib have no direct translation and are the same in any language. What do you call the protective plastic covers everybody has to wear over their shoes during the tour to prevent contamination – a slipper? ‘Can we use the well known British idiom to kill two birds with one stone to say that a machine does two jobs at the same time?’ Yes, you clot, it’s the same in French: faire d’une pierre deux coups. How about in one fell swoop. Classic English.
The idea of the tour is that the punters get to see the whole process from start to finish. They see the raw cocoa beans at the beginning and at the end they are given a bar of chocolate to take back to their cousins in Tennessee. The process is pretty boring and only really interesting if you are there. It’s the same in any food processing factory. Inedible stuff comes in: edible stuff goes out. Or is it the other way around? Lots of big vats stirring things, pipelines leading off to different rooms, conveyor belts moving different ingredients this way and that. The only difference is the smell. It must be better to work here than in the Ginsters factory.
So in short this is what happens: the raw beans are shipped in from some impoverished country in Africa, South America or Asia. The actual hard, laborious work of separating the beans from the cocoa pods is done over there just like the good old days. Like coffee beans they must be roasted to drive out the moisture and cultivate the aroma. After this they are winnowed (shells removed) and then the remaining cocoa nibs are ground into powder. Next sugar and lecithin and vanilla are added and stirred for three days in a conch at around 45 degrees. The quality of any chocolate depends on two factors: the quality of the beans and the conching process. Big commercial manufacturers will conch their chocolate for perhaps a few hours, whereas Valrhona conch theirs for three days using only the highest quality beans.
Finally, the chocolate is put into moulds and then tempered, which as I referred to in Lyon 21, is the gradual heating up and cooling down process used to give chocolate its polished appearance and that ‘ukk’ sound when you bite into it. It’s then packed and shipped off all over the world.
During the tour I made some notes. I’m not happy with slipper for the shoe covers (sounds like we’re all going to bed) but I can’t find any other word for it: overshoe (the manufacturer’s name) sounds too functional. Protective foot garment? What are those things you wrap around dogs when they’re cold. Dog blankets. Shoe blankets. Sounds ridiculous. We go back to the classroom and I run over a few points. We agree on roller not cylinder; racks not shelves; chocolate pellets not drops; and in the end decide to keep slipper. Then it’s lunchtime.
After tucking into thick pieces of poached salmon, sauté potatoes, a selection of pâté and cold meats, finished off with crêpes, cheese and coffee, I sit back and feel satisfied. I’ve done my job well and eaten like a Lord. What more could I want, hey, oggers?
It’s only one day out of many I still have to lead. And of course, they won’t be all as good as this one, so perhaps the trick is to keep the good days in view. Don’t shove them away to the back of your mind where all the shocking experiences live. Keep them at hand like the bottle of water on your bedside table ready to quench your midnight thirst. When the days don’t go as well as this one; drag it out and think what a good day it was. And what’s more, I’ve only got to wait until next week. Then I do it all again.