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Raising the (Chocolate) Bar, One Cocoa Bean at a Time

Jacques Torres demonstrates chocolate made from scratch and offers wine pairings for his sweet creations

Nick Fauchald
Posted: February 10, 2005

It takes a child's imagination, the expertise of a world-famous pastry chef and the zeal of a chocoholic to create something like Jacques Torres' Chocolate Haven in Manhattan, where chocolate lovers of all ages can watch it being made, from cocoa bean to glossy bar.

Torres, who became one of America's first celebrity pastry chefs during his tenure at the now-shuttered Le Cirque restaurant in Manhattan, makes his delicious creations from scratch. Like the artist who mixes his own paints or the winemaker who tends his own vines, Torres wants to have as much control as possible over the flavor of his finished products.

He draws his inspiration from his boyhood in Provence. "In France, I knew who caught the fish or who raised the vegetables I ate," he says. "You could put a face on their product. Now food has become very impersonal. I'm trying to show the people behind my products."

Only after touring larger chocolate factories to learn the craft and sourcing the hard-to-find equipment and cacao beans from three continents did Torres become a chocolatier. As in winemaking, the quality of the fruit and how it is blended determines the flavor profile and complexity of the final product. Torres will use up to six kinds of beans for each batch of chocolate.

"To me it's like smelling a bouquet of flowers," he says. "If you have daises mixed with roses, then you get a more interesting combination of smells. If you use one flower, the smell will only go in one direction."

How Chocolate is Made

The chocolate-making process can be seen through the Chocolate Haven's giant windows in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. First, the beans are sorted on a conveyor belt to remove stems and impurities, and a powerful vacuum removes dust.

The beans are next roasted at 300 degrees F for 30 minutes, cooled down and run through a winnower, which cracks the beans and separates the chocolate nibs from the shells. At this point, although the nibs are bitter-tasting, the complexities of the finished product are already detectable to Torres. "You get hit right away with a first wave of flavor, then it dies down and comes back," he says.

The nibs are then placed in a two-process grinder, which produces a paste called cocoa liqueur. The liqueur is mixed with sugar and milk powder. Torres must carefully monitor the temperature of his equipment to make sure the mixture doesn't get too hot, and burnt-flavored, or too cool, and seize up.

Next the mixture is passed through a three-roller refiner, which crushes it into a superfine powder less than 20 microns in diameter, the size at which your palate cannot detect texture. "I bought this machine from a lipstick factory," Torres says. Many chocolate manufacturers instead use cheaper metal grinders, which result in a grittier finished product.

The cocoa mass is dumped into a "conch," a large mortar-and-pestle-like machine that grinds the mass for 12 hours, polishing the miniscule chocolate particles and removing leftover moisture. Cocoa butter and soy lecithin, a bonding agent, are added, giving the mixture fluidity and, finally, the look of runny chocolate. The liquid chocolate goes through the magic process of tempering--lowered first to 83 degrees F, then raised to 88 degrees--which gives the finished product its glossy sheen and audible snap. It's then ready for molding, cooling and, most importantly, eating.

Pairing Chocolate with Wine

The best pairings for chocolate are sweeter wines, with little to no tannins to interfere with chocolate's natural tannins and with enough acidity to cut through the butterfat. Torres' taste tends toward the sweet side, but he shys away from sweeter wines when enjoying them with his own confections. "I get to a point where I have enough sugar, so a glass of very sweet wine on top of very sweet chocolate is too much for me," he says.

Torres uses wine as an ingredient in several of his creations, which makes the pairing even easier. "We make a Grand Cru ganache with Mondavi Reserve Cabernet," he says. "We use more wine than cream!" Torres also makes chocolates with Port and truffles with Champagne, shaped like Champagne corks. "Most places don't use actual Champagne in their truffles, but we use the real thing," he says.

Here's a cheat sheet for navigating that box of Valentine's Day chocolates, with Torres' wine pairing advice:

Bittersweet chocolate (at least 50 percent cocoa liqueur): "You can drink an unsweet wine with bitter dark chocolate. I'll drink a Merlot with some that has 65 to 70 percent cocoa content. ... Champagne is tough with dark chocolate. It can give you a dry aftertaste."

Semisweet chocolate (35 to 50 percent cocoa liqueur): "Banyuls or Sauternes are sweet, but at the same time you have so much flavor with it, which adds a whole other taste experience. The chocolate adds something to those flavors."

Milk chocolate: "Milk gives you different texture in your mouth, which can be washed away with a demi-sec Champagne."

Chocolate with nuts: "Nutty chocolates can go with stronger wines, like Port. If you're drinking Port, I'd go with hazelnut or almond, something nutty and caramelized."

White chocolate: "The first ingredient in white chocolate is sugar, and the second ingredient is fat, so you have a sweet, creamy vanilla flavor. So you need something creamy and sweet, like a cream or oloroso Sherry."

Chocolates with citrus fillings: "Lemon or orange-flavored chocolates work well with drier Champagne."

Caramel-filled chocolates: "Liquid caramel with Sauternes is great."

Chocolate truffles: "A truffle with cocoa powder dries your mouth out. You want to wash it out with something not too dry, like a sweeter Champagne or Sauternes, which gives back the sweetness that the truffle takes away and coats your mouth, giving you a nice, pleasant finish."

Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven
350 Hudson Street, New York
(212) 414-2462

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