If you even know of Somerville, Massachusetts, a densely populated little city often overlooked by out-of-towners who, when they venture across the river from Boston, flock to our more collegiate neighbor, it's unlikely that you conceive of it as a center of chocolate revolution.
But in this town noted for its historical rebellions, in the shadow of Prospect Hill where one of the earliest American flags flew, Taza Chocolate is staging a subtle resistance against business as usual in the American chocolate industry: developing deep relationships with their growers, paying direct trade prices for beans, creatively circumventing obstacles to growth while remaining true to their ethically-minded origins, and making a chocolate that takes its cues from Mexican traditions rather than dominant European paradigms. If it seems to be overstating the case to call this a revolution, well, ok, but it is part of a significant shift in the world of American chocolate production, a shift you can see happening in the transformation Dominican cacao beans into a singularly unique chocolate at the Taza factory, just down the road from my house.
There is always something amazing about coming to understand the processes involved in making something as mysterious as chocolate. Chock it up to my status as a child of 1980s America, but it actually makes me kind of emotional to see real food really being made from real ingredients by real people. Sometimes I feel as though my whole conscious life has been spent resolving an abstract sense that bags and boxes of food spring fully formed from grocery store shelves with knowledge of the realities of ingredient growth, transportation, manufacturing and marketing. So when I think about land, plants, human knowledge and hard work becoming solidified in something that could be so easily be taken for granted as a delicious, but trifling, morsel, it makes me feel passionate, and reverent. I feel that way about my garden and the vegetables from my CSA and the artisan breads I buy and I've felt that way about chocolate. I'll admit though, I never expected to feel so moved in a chocolate factory. No, it was my experience in BriBri, Costa Rica that I had planned to hold as a pinnacle of this feeling, but something about experiencing the Taza factory on a recent behind-the-scenes tour got me in that same emotional place, and somewhere different too because in it I saw the possibility for maintaining this kind of reverence even within a factory and a growing company, too often the final resting places for respect and dedicated involvement in the creation of products that have meaning beyond themselves.
Perhaps reverence is an enduring possibility in the Taza factory because the machines are not simply hulking industrial beasts, but lovingly salvaged tools. The bing cherry colored antique roaster, reconditioned in Europe and installed, bit by gorgeous bit, in Somerville stands near the dramatic, if weathered, winnowing machine which was found in an abandoned chocolate factory in the Dominican Republic. Each enable greater production without the sacrifice of story, history or art.
At the core of Taza's unique texture is the molino, a Mexican millstone that is used at Taza to grind the cacao and sugar. For each different ingredient, a different "dressing" is required for the stone. At Taza, co-founder Alex Whimore hand-dresses the molino, a skill he developed studying in Oaxaca, Mexico. The stone grinding produces a more textured final product, a result that is further emphasized by Taza's decision not to conch their chocolate, a step the majority of Western chocolate producers would not even classify as optional because it is the mixing and refining process that creates the silky smooth chocolate that is supposed to be a marker of greatness.
The stones are powered by more contemporary motors, but the process is age-old. The cacao nibs (roasted, crushed and winnowed cacao bean fragments) are ground into chocolate liquor, a thick and bitter liquid that is mixed with sugar and further ground with the molino to create chocolate. Additional flavoring agents like vanilla, cinnamon, chilies or almonds might be added at this point, or for the smoother Taza bars, a bit of cocoa butter will be incorporated to smooth out the more rustic texture of the Mexicano Taza chocolate rounds.
The chocolate is then tempered in a large automated vat that moves the chocolate through a precise set of temperature points and then holds it at the perfect point to produce glossy, evenly textured chocolate. Though there is a certain French-flavored poetry to tempering chocolate on a marble slab, which is how I was taught to do it, I have to admit to a powerful envy at meeting the large tempering machine at Taza. It really wouldn't fit in my kitchen though.
Here's another point at which to appreciate the creativity and uniqueness of the machinery at Taza. This machine, which drops pre-measured glops of tempered chocolate into the molds, is essentially a modded-out doughnut depositor which would shoot out dough into boiling oil. Using my good hand (this was soon after my carpal tunnel surgery — I'm doing really well now!), I maneuvered the mold under the chocolate dropping from this machine and carefully filled its cavities with freshly made chocolate.
It takes a lot of molds to meet the demand for Taza chocolate, there were racks and racks of them for both the bars and the unique Mexicano rounds, as well as large molds to produce the bulk blocks sold to restaurants, cafes and bakeries.
Once the chocolate sets in the molds, it is turned out on racks to await wrapping.
Again, this kind of a child of the 1980s thing, but when I think of factories and packaging, I never fail to think of some behind the scenes Sesame Street video, like the peanut butter factory one, where machines and conveyor belts get the job done. So, it came as a shock to me that all the bars at Taza are hand wrapped, a task which, if you want it to look really good, is easier said than done.
Not only are the bars hand wrapped though, they are wrapped in beautiful paper printed by Taza's neighbor, Albertine Press. On the day of our tour, press owner Shelley Barandes demonstrated how the letterpress is used, inking up a machine and then letting us take a whirl on it to create our own labels for the chocolate we'd just molded. Not all the bars were wrapped though, because who could resist trying some of the fresh made chocolate? It was strikingly different: aggressively fruity and bold with a notably soft and rich texture that melted instantly, leaving the chocolate crystals of sugar behind just a little longer to linger on the tongue.
Aaron Foster, the voice of Taza on Twitter, noted that three day old chocolate was his particular favorite, and he has reason to know, what with access to all sorts of chocolate at every possible day old. So, I took him at his word and didn't crack my bar until day three. Luckily, I had diversions from other Taza chocolate in the intervening days, including my favorites, the Mexicano rounds of guadillo chili and salted almond. Oh, and day three is awesome, but I probably need to taste more to find my favorite day.
I also got a little chocolate fix from a series of pitchers of cacao tea. While Alex Whitmore explained how Taza's reconditioned winnowing machine separated out the cocoa nibs from the skins of the beans, he mentioned several uses for the skins. In addition to donating them to local gardening efforts and farmers, Taza sells some to tea and beer producers, who use them to impart a subtle flavor to some of their blends. Since summer to me means a ready pitcher of cold barley tea and we've had some mysteriously summer-like weather lately, I immediately wondered if the skins could be used in the same way as the roasted barley. Begging a few handfuls off Aaron, I set home to find out. A full pitcher of cool, filtered water, a quarter cup of cacao bean skins and about three hours in the fridge and I had my answer. It works like a charm. If you like the earthy, musky chocolate flavor of cocoa nibs and cold barley tea, you'll definitely like this! It works with cocoa nibs too, though they seem to want a longer steeping time and the flavor is a little less delicate. Perfect for a light and refreshing drink that just hints at chocolate flavors.
For those who want more than a hint, you can try these Mexican chocolate cupcakes made with Taza's chocolate. Or, just eat it out of hand, it tastes even better when you think about all the work and care that goes into each bar. Local folks can catch Alex and Larry, founders of Taza, giving a talk about their delicious chocolate and building an ethical company at the Cambridge Center on May 13th.
Taza Mexicano Guajillo Cupcakes with Whipped Ganache makes one dozen vegan cupcakes or 1 8” layer cake
77 grams (one package) Taza Chocolate Mexicano Guajillo, coarsely chopped
1 cup (125 grams) all purpose unbleached flour
1/4 cup (22 grams) Dutch processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon (4.5 grams) baking powder
1/2 teaspoon (2.3 grams) baking soda
2 tablespoons (14 grams) masa harina or cornflour
1 teaspoon (2 grams) cinnamon
¼-1 teaspoon ground guajillo chili or pinch of cayanne, optional, depending on desired heat level
1 cup (240 grams) unsweetened soymilk (Vitasoy brand is recommended)
1 tablespoon (15 grams) fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup (165 grams) piloncillo or packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup (55 grams) canola oil
2 teaspoons (8.7 grams) vanilla extract or ½ Mexican vanilla bean, scraped
1/2 (3 grams) teaspoon sea salt
one recipe whipped ganache frosting ¼ cup Taza cocoa nibs or crushed raw cacao bean or shaved chocolate
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Fill a medium-sized saucepan less than half way with water and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat so water is steaming but not boiling. Place a bowl with a lip wider than the saucepan over the steaming water. Add coarsely chopped Mexicano Guajillo to the bowl and stir gently until fully melted. Note that the Mexicano discs will not melt as smoothly as some other chocolates and may seem slightly grainy. Remove from heat and set aside, taking care not to allow any water to enter the bowl.
- In a medium-sized bowl, sift the all purpose unbleached flour, Dutch processed cocoa powder, baking powder and baking soda. Whisk in the masa harina or cornflour, cinnamon and chili powder, if using.
- In another medium-sized bowl, whisk the unsweetened soymilk and lemon juice together until mixture has thickened and is foamy. Add the piloncillo or brown sugar, oil, vanilla extract and sea salt. Whisk vigorously for about one minute.
- Pour the wet mixture into the dry and whisk until smooth. Add melted Mexicano Guajillo to the batter and whisk until well combined. Scoop into a prepared cupcake pan or pour into prepared cake pan. For cupcakes, bake 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. For cake, bake 35-40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes before turning cake out of the pan or removing cupcakes. Allow cake to finish cooling completely before frosting with whipped ganache and sprinkling with cocoa nibs or chopped cacao bean.
Whipped Ganache Frosting
170 grams (2 bars) Taza 60% or 70% dark chocolate, finely chopped
3/4 cup unsweetened soy milk (Vitasoy brand is recommended)
¼ cup agave syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of sea salt
- Place finely chopped Taza chocolate in the bowl of a stand mixer.
- In a small saucepan, heat the unsweetened soymilk until bubbles begin to form at the edges of the pan. Stir in the agave syrup and vanilla and immediately pour over the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 30 seconds. Add cinnamon and sea salt, stirring until mixture is smooth and consistent in color and texture. Scrape down sides as needed to fully incorporate all ingredients. Let stand at room temperature until mixture has thickened.
- Fit mixer with a whisk attachment and whisk mixture until light and fluffy. Use frosting promptly or it will become stiff and hard to work with. If making ahead of time, the frosting can be stored and beaten until soft just prior to use.
A note on ingredients:
Masa harina is the flour made from corn that has been soaked in water and lime to soften it and improve digestibility. It is used widely to make tortillas and tamales. Cornflour is produced without this soaking step and without the lime. They are typically not interchangeable products, but in this recipe, because called for in such a small amount and is used primarily for texture, they may be used in place of one another without much difference. Masa harina is sold in most well-stocked grocery stores as well as specialty and ethnic markets.
Piloncillo is a flavorful, unrefined cane sugar commonly used in Mexico. It is typically sold in a hard, molded block. To use, simply grate. Brown sugar may be used to substitute, but do look for a designation of “dark” which means it contains more molasses than other brown sugar. Alternatively, you might add a teaspoon-tablespoon of molasses to the brown sugar. Piloncillo can be found in specialty and ethnic markets and spice shops.
Guajillo powder can be hard to find; it is more common as a whole dried pepper. Simply grind the whole pepper in a spice mill for fresh homemade powder instantly.