One nice thing about retirement is that you can finally take advantage of things you’ve wanted to do forever in your home town. Yesterday, two friends and I joined a small group –there were about 14 of us– to take a tour of Theo chocolate factory. Theo’s could not compete with Willy Wonka’s largest chocolate factory in the world, since it is the smallest, at least in this country. Also unlike Willy’s, our factory tour did not have a Fudge Room (thank goodness) or a chocolate lake to drink from, since all the chocolate in its gooey stage was pretty well hidden from view in humongous tanks. However, the aroma as we walked around the plant, more than made up for any elements that were missing. For example, we missed being able to take in the first steps of chocolate production: harvesting the cocoa pods (though we did get to see and touch one), plucking out the seeds, fermenting the seeds and drying them, since these must all take place before the seeds get shipped out of their respective countries, which in the case of Theo were Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Costa Rica and one in South America, which I have forgotten. Without this treatment the seeds would arrive here moldy.
To quote Willy Wonka, the tour contained “little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous.” It picked up where workers in the above countries left off, with more roasting of the beans, an explanation of how sugar is mixed into the chocolate, a visit to the confections room to see the marble tables where the fillings are made, a look at a worker hand mixing chocolate with nuts to make brittle, and a peek into the wrapping room.
We were warned before the tour began to avoid the temptation to try all the samples in the show room, good advice, because after walking a few yards we were seated and offered a taste of a Jane Goodall bar (some part of the profits go to support her work), and a Madagascar/Costa Rica combo with a hint of salt. Early on we also sampled cacao nibs, tiny bits of unrefined — code for unsweetened — beans. We were appeased a few minutes later with slivers of cacao nib brittle, sweet, dark chocolate with a bit of crunch. By the time we left, we had tested chocolate with bread, cherry almond chocolate, chocolate with chilies, ginger chocolate, chocolate with mint, chai tea flavored chocolate, and chocolate with fig, fennel and almond. In the confections room, I think I spied the chocolatier at work over a pan on a hot plate, no doubt, containing some future filling of rosemary, water chestnuts and poppy seeds that will miraculously taste just fine in chocolate.
What I didn’t learn about chocolate from the tour I will learn from the six different expensive bars I purchased. The guide explained that the high prices were the result of producing only organic chocolate and establishing Fair Trade Agreements with the growers of Theobroma Cacao. (Now do you see where the store name came from?) I made another investment at Theo, this one a bargain: 50 pounds of chocolate compost for a mere $5. I haven’t yet taken it out of my car because I’m enjoying tooling around while inhaling deeply. I’m looking forward to having gorgeous zinnias this time next year thanks to this soil enhancer. Maybe they’ll even smell like chocolate.