Friday, December 17, 2004
A Trip to the Chocolate Factory
When I was a child, we measured the approach of the holidays on a kitchen calendar. In late November, Mum would spend a whole day making fruitcake from her mother’s recipe. I loved the processes of preparation, the necessary order of tasks. Dried fruit and candied cherries had to be picked over, washed, dried and floured so they wouldn’t sink in the batter. Once baked, the cake would be wrapped in greaseproof paper and foil, and unwrapped once a week to be fed brandy dripped from a teaspoon. By mid-December, we’d each stood over Mum’s big mixing bowl full of fruit and suet for the Christmas pudding and stirred in a wish. My sister and I would then begin our confectionery projects, involving clouds of powdered sugar, condensed milk and scorched saucepans. I spent hours moulding tiny fruits out of marzipan tinted with food-colouring.
These days, Mid-December is focused more on grading final exams than dancing visions of sugar plums. So last Saturday, under a leaden sky, I set off in search of festive inspiration. I drove west into South Bend’s post-industrial hinterland, past the lathe works and boarded-up buildings, and swung into the parking lot of an old factory. I stepped inside.
I had come to visit the chocolate factory. I’d read up on the origins of chocolate in Harold McGee’s wonderful book, “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.” So I was looking forward to holding samples of real beans from a cacao pod. As a perfect tonic for my temporary grading blues, my tour guide turns out to be a former student, who is as funny and smart when describing chocolate manufacture as she’d been when grappling with kantian ethics in my classroom. It’s a pleasure to learn from her expertise.
She fluently reviews the history of chocolate’s development from the chili spiked “bitter water” drunk by Aztec rulers to an aristocratic beverage served in porcelain to today’s ubiquitous American candy bar. Then we don quaint paper bonnets and enter the rooms where the chocolate is actually made.
The processes are reassuringly intelligible and the machinery is mostly like a home kitchen scaled up. On a long table, a great sheet of raspberry chocolate filling is cooling. In the enrobing room, we watch as molten chocolate sheets down over clusters of nuts and caramel, to give turtles their shell. At the end of the line, a young man discards any skinny-looking turtles and hand packs the handsome survivors into boxes. In the airy packing room, there are shelves stacked up high with gold boxes like bullion in Fort Knox.
Before we move on to the Museum of Chocolate, I get to dip myself a spoon in molten chocolate, which solidifies as I watch the hokey video. The best part watching is my fellow viewer, a youngster enchanted by the talking chocolate bean, Senor Cacao, who introduces the spectacle. His Mom is busy decorating the café with giant starlight mints. She, too, is a talented student of mine. She explains that the Tribune has sponsored a party to give kids from needy homes the gifts they’d wished for in their “Letters to Santa”. Sixty-five children will have their wishes granted that afternoon, thanks to local business philanthropy.
As I drive back downtown, loaded with free samples, I’m feeling a little soft-centred about the holidays. Perhaps even adult life can be as magical as a visit to Willie Wonka’s? A minor disappointment at the public library relieves me of my sentimental mood. They can’t find the CD I need for this commentary. When I get home, I set down my glittery packages with a sigh. The phone rings: the librarian recognised my voice from the radio, and has traced my number from library records. She says: “I’ve found the CD.”