The ultimate “sweet, my bru” kind of workshop: chocolate-making

The writer's son at the chocolate-making workshop. Note the cast on his right arm: he had a broken wrist at the time. Needless-to-say, it was chocolate-coated by the end of the session. (Photograph: Penny Haw.)


THERE are workshops and there are workshops. Sometimes they are even useful: particularly when you actually learn something worthwhile by attending – or when you manage to artfully complete an unrelated assignment while the get-together proceeds unobtrusively around you.

In many cases though, workshop is just a euphemism for “an unavoidable session of indoctrination” or for “a meeting, the purpose of which is not clear and therefore open to discussion”.

When however, the primary activity of the workshop requires you to immerse yourself, for the best part of a day, elbow-deep in your own pot of delectably delicious, gently melting chocolate, who gives a doodad what they call the thingamajig and whether or not you learn doohickey by being there. It is, quite simply, as my teenage son might say, “sweet, my bru”.

But in fact – in between surreptitiously dunking finger after finger into the creamy warm mixture and greedily licking each sticky digit clean every time chocolatier Richard Tomes glanced the other way – I learned a great deal during a chocolate-making workshop in the Chocolates by Tomes studio on the Backsberg Wine Estate recently. Indeed, I discovered new words such as “conching” and “tempering”. I learned new definitions for terms like “back off”, “sit proud” and “bloom”. I also discovered, as my tongue twirled around a chocolate drenched finger for the 78th time, that even the best chocolate will photosynthesise you green about the gills if you consume too much of it too quickly.

(Photograph: Chocolates by Tomes.)

The idea of the workshop is to teach chocophiles how to work with chocolate, which is more difficult than you might imagine. During the course, which accommodates up to eight people at a time, Richard provides a brief history and theory lesson. Then, in a truly hands-on, fingers-in and step-by-step manner, he guides you through the tempering, moulding, filling and decoration of truffles, which – despite being beyond chock-full by the end of the day – you will proudly take home with you.

The finest cocoa beans, explained Richard early in the workshop, come from Africa, particularly Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria.

Increasingly, he said, chocolatiers are sourcing beans – and other primary ingredients, including milk whey and sugar – from individual estates and farms to improve the quality of their chocolate: “There is a move away from mass production of chocolate products. Just as winemakers are creating extraordinary wines from single vineyards, chocolatiers are turning back the clock, returning to their specialised roots and combing the world for the best ingredients for their products. They’re buying beans from single estates in Africa, milk from the best dairy herds in Ireland and sugar from top plantations.”

Richard – a former London-based insolvency litigation lawyer – and his South African wife, Lorraine are among those determined to keep chocolate in its rightful place upon the luxury-of-luxuries pedestal. Having been convinced by Lorraine – who lived in the UK for seven years – to return to her homeland in 2004, Richard exchanged his lawyer’s wig for a toque when he enrolled for chef school in Cape Town.

(Photograph: Chocolates by Tomes.)

It was during this time, at a demonstration by Lindt, that Richard first heard the call of the cocoa. Then, as if preordained, a chocolate shop at the V&A Waterfront came up for sale. Richard and Lorraine bought the business and established The Chocolatier. Soon, in addition to selling their much sought-after range of more than 30 different truffles from their own shop, the Tomes began supplying hotels, other chocolate shops, and Fruit and Veg Food Lovers Markets throughout the country.

In 2006, Backsberg winemaker, Michael Back decided to add something new to his estate near Paarl. He approached Richard and Lorraine, proposing that they open a chocolate shop on the farm. After short consideration, the pair sold the chocolate shop at the Waterfront, moved their business to Backsberg and re-branded it Chocolates by Tomes.

“Lorraine and I are very proud of the new range,” said Richard. “We wanted to demonstrate this by attaching our name to it. We want the Tomes name to be synonymous with creativity, craftsmanship and quality. Moreover, we believe that the move to Backsberg is a perfect match. Michael and his team are as passionate about their wine as we are about chocolate – and the beautiful wine estate serves as a perfect backdrop for our shop, factory and studio.”

Now happily settled in a beautifully renovated old farmhouse on the estate, Richard, Lorraine and their team of nine create and sell a new range of gourmet truffles and chocolates from the shop on the farm, and offer chocolate making workshops and chocolate tasting events in the adjacent studio.

The objective of the chocolate making and tasting workshops, said Richard, is to educate people about chocolate. Naturally, he is convinced of its health benefits: “Chocolate, if of a high quality and consumed in small quantities, is good for you. Dark chocolate, in particular, with its high cocoa content, is extremely beneficial and has been used to holistically help a number of illnesses including depression.”

(Photograph: Chocolates by Tomes.)

There was certainly no evidence of depression at the workshop, during which we learned that conching is the uninterrupted stirring of cocoa beans that have been ground into chocolate paste. The process takes place in large vats that feature rotating paddles or blades, which are shaped like conches. It breaks down sugar crystals that are added to the chocolate, and blends it with the vanilla, additional cocoa butter and milk whey that are added according to each chocolatier’s recipe. Conching also helps to develop flavours and ultimately produces velvety smooth chocolate with no grittiness.

While conching is machine-driven, tempering – which is as critical a process in the creation of top quality chocolate – is done by hand during the workshop. The practice involves an alternating process of heating, cooling, and heating again to specific temperatures ¬and is essential because chocolate is not naturally shiny. In addition to giving chocolate its attractive glossy appearance, tempering ensures that the substance melts beautifully in the mouth and ages better. If it is not tempered properly, chocolate is dull and streaky, and has a tendency to “bloom”, which means it will lose its gloss and form a powdery grey-white or tan film on the surface.

The classic tempering method taught at the workshop involves melting the chocolate until it is lump-free. Then one third of the chocolate is poured onto a marble slab, spread and worked back and forth with a metal spatula until it becomes thick. This is then added back to the remaining melted chocolate and stirred. The exhausting process is repeated until the entire mixture “sits proud”, which means it is at exactly the right temperature and consistency to work with.

Once the chocolate has successfully been tempered, the workshop teaches chocolatier-hopefuls how to create truffle shells in special moulds. While these cool, they learn how to make, pipe and roll ganache, how to “back off” moulds, and finally, how to tap out and decorate the truffles.

For sure, there are workshops and there are workshops. The Tomes chocolate-making workshop is a truly indulgent and pleasurable way to spend a day. And, even if you never make another chocolate yourself again in your life – it really is hard work – the workshop will leave you with a new appreciation of how time-consuming and labour-intensive it is to handcraft quality chocolates.

When I wrote this piece for The Weekender, Chocolates by Tomes was located at Backsberg Wine Estate. The company has since moved. Go to http://www.chocolatesbytomes.co.za for current contact details.

(First published in The Weekender.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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