How do you turn raw cocoa beans into picture-perfect truffles?
David Castellan and Cynthia Leung, the husband-and-wife team behind Toronto chocolatier Soma, have been breathing new life into old machines since 2003. That’s when they opened their tiny chocolate factory in the Distillery District, and began magicking raw cocoa beans into impeccably smooth slabs, bars and truffles. Castellan, a former pastry chef, took a course on chocolate-making before committing to the new business. “I learned to make chocolate from the bean, which no one else was doing at the time,” he says. Even a relatively simple product, like Soma’s dark almond cluster truffles, involves a fairly labour-intensive manufacturing process. Here’s how they do it.
It all starts with the cocoa beans, which can cost anywhere between $12 and $25 per kilo. Castellan purchases beans by the 60 kilogram burlap sack (the ones pictured here are from Peru).
Before getting started, Castellan checks the purity of each batch using a special metal contraption. It works like a guillotine, slicing a representative sample of beans clean in half. “There’s only one guy in Switzerland who makes this tool,” he says.
Cracking open the beans allows Castellan to check out what’s going on inside. “You want to see this nice brown color,” he says. “Purple means underfermented.”
Assuming the sample is up to snuff, the next step is to go through the entire bag, handful by handful, and pick out stones, sticks and other debris. “Sometimes there’s weird shit in there,” Castellan says. “I’ve heard of people finding bullets. It tells you a little bit about the culture.” (Other things he’s come across while cleaning beans: kidney beans, an ad for motorcycles, cigarette butts and cellphone parts).
Once he’s sure they’re clean, Castellan pours the beans into the hopper of a vintage 1940s roaster, which can roast up to 120 kilograms of beans at a time using the scirocco method (“named after the stream of hot air from Africa that shoots up through Europe,” says Castellan). The beans are fed into a hollow globe containing an enormous steel roasting ball, which rotates continuously, tossing and heating the beans at a consistent 120 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes. Once roasted, the beans are released into the chamber below and cooled for another 15 minutes.
Next, he pours the roasted cocoa into a winnower, which gets rid of the tough shells by crushing the beans across rollers and shaking them in a vibrating chamber. “It’s the most Willy Wonka machine we have,” Castellan says.
This is what the winnower looks like from above.
Once de-shelled, the beans are crumbled into seven different grades, from fine cocoa dust to large nibs.
Now it’s time to make chocolate. First, nibs are scooped into an industrial strength grinder.
The grinder churns out a thick brown sludge, which hardens overnight into an unsweetened block called a “chocolate liquor.”
The liquor can be stored until it’s needed. Here are several pre-made slabs.
Next, Castellan adds sugar to the chocolate liquor and pours the mixture into the ball mill, a large cylindrical container filled with hundreds of steel ball bearings, which bash the liquor into a super-smooth paste.
The paste is then pumped into a heated mixer called a “conche,” which smooths out the flavours and gives the chocolate a velvety, creamy feel. After this stage, the chocolate is packaged up and shipped across town to Soma’s retail location on King Street, which is where the final products are put together.
At Soma on King, every chocolate-making process starts with “tempering,” which means heating and cooling the chocolate mix to specific temperatures in order to ensure that the finished products maintain their colour and texture over time. This is the tempering machine.
Once the chocolate has been tempered, it’s ready to be manipulated. Soma’s dark almond cluster truffles are constructed from the bottom up. The base of the nut cluster is formed by passing a container of chocolate across a circular lattice, producing tiny molten chocolate medallions.
The medallions are sprinkled with ground pralines.
The centre of each truffle is made of gianduja, a sweet chocolate containing about 30 per cent hazelnut paste. Hazelnuts and milk chocolate are blended in a mixer and tempered, and then a dollop of gianduja is piped onto each disc.
Four almonds are affixed to each truffle. “Bear claws, not rabbit ears,” says Soma employee Sean McLauchlan.
Finally, after they’ve cooled for a few minutes, the almond clusters are placed on a conveyor belt and passed through a curtain of dark chocolate, which pours out of an attachment on the temperer called the “enrober.”
When they come out the other side, the truffles are totally coated in chocolate.
A single almond is placed on top of each truffle, for a finishing touch. “And that’s it.”
The clusters have crunchy exteriors and creamy centres, and the sweetness of the gianduja is a great foil for the slightly bitter dark chocolate.