It’s silly season for chocolates, so it’s rather apt that we lose our head in a small chocolate factory in ‘Frisco
Ghirardelli may get the tourist hype in San Francisco, but some wonderful chocolate is being made further down the Embarcadero, opposite the pier. So, next time you’re in 'Frisco, visit TCHO. This small chocolate-making factory organises free tours – ‘Come in, watch how we make artisan chocolate, and join our guided chocolate-tasting event!’ Of course, on the way out, you'll stop to buy the products – you must! The tour, lasting an hour, is fun and guaranteed to give you a near-total education on chocolate.
Call to register, walk in and wait for the group to gather. This is a food-production facility, so open-toed shoes (sandals, flip-flops) are out. Kids under 8 don't get in — Willy Wonka's methods don't appeal to them. While you wait for your tour to begin, get the mocha, absolutely the best I've ever had. Don the hair net, beard-guard and earplugs they provide, surrender jewellery, watches, cameras, cellphones and all loose objects, and enter a curtained area for a briefing. There you watch a video of the history of chocolate, its production across continents and the narrative behind TCHO. The guide fills in with fascinating details. You get to touch cocoa-nuts and some small tools of the trade.
TCHO (pronounced ‘cho’) is the phonetic spelling of the first sound in ‘chocolate’, a truly inspired marriage of ‘t’echnology and ‘cho’colate. Founded by a former NASA scientist and a cocoa aficionado, its present president/CEO is from WIRED magazine. The company brands itself ‘Beyond Fairtrade’; it is fair-trade certified and does not infuse outside flavours into its products. Its brand value comes from sustainable sourcing practices and partnership with USAID to create factories in places where cacao is grown. It trains locals to grow and harvest quality beans, from which its cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate are made.
The guide walks you through the pod-to-palate process, all the while regaling with titbits – only women pack chocolates because they have cooler hands. Starbucks' Kuma is made by TCHO. Chocolate sold in shops should have less than seven ingredients. White chocolate is just lard…
You then move to the tasting room for a tutorial in judging chocolate. You're treated to satiny flat discs of luxury chocolates in fruit, nut, citrus, milk chocolate and dark varieties. You're told that the undertones of fruit, citrus, nut or bitter are derived from the cocoa beans themselves. Much like in wine-tasting, you are encouraged to savour it slowly. Step 1: rub chocolate between fingers to release the flavours with your body heat. Step 2: break chocolate in half and if you hear a crisp snap, it means the chocolate has been tempered correctly. Step 3: let chocolate melt on your tongue to experience (and enjoy) the ‘flavour wheels’. You learn to associate flavours with where the bean is grown (Madagascar is citrus while Ecuador is nutty), which flavour goes with which food or wine and what to look for when you buy your next bar.
For those who want their daily fix, buy TCHO-a-day, a daily choco-dose in 30-, 60- or 90-day packs. The pieces are in four flavours that you take “as needed” — for inspiration, coping, focus, optimism or euphoria. The ingredients include theobromine, serotonin, flavanols, and love. And it comes with this warning: ‘May cause feelings of happiness and well-being, may cause urge to exceed daily dosage’. If dark chocolate does boost brain function, TCHO’s chocolate should help you qualify for Mensa.