Finding myself back visiting family in Scotland, I did what any good Chocablog writer would do – check out the local chocolate scene. It turns out there are some interesting things happening north of the border, so I headed to Edinburgh to see The Chocolate Tree, a café turned bean-to-bar chocolate maker.
Even simply as a café, The Chocolate Tree is a lovely place to visit. There is a fantastic selection of hot chocolates, teas and coffees available plus all kinds of cakes and other yummy things to eat. The shelves are filled with more than 30 varieties of organic chocolate bars and their handmade chocolates in hand-folded origami boxes.
So I was happy enough to sit there and work my way through a plate of churros with chocolate dipping sauce as Ali Gower told me their story.
Back in their early days, Ali and his wife Friederike peddled their wares at music festivals around the UK from a geodesic dome tent, and even now they still attend farmers markets each and every weekend. He also talked about why they decided to make the jump from simply creating bars of chocolate to creating their own chocolate. It is clear that they’ve given what they do a lot of thought.
Inside The Workshop
While the shop is located in Edinburgh itself, their workshop is located about 20 miles east in Haddington and that’s where the exciting stuff happens. As I walked in, there were people busy making gelato, decorating some Easter-related things and also hand-wrapping bars of chocolate.
By this point, baking was over for the day but the whole place smelled delicious enough without the addition of the aroma of cakes in the oven. But apart from three tempering machines – one for white chocolate, one for milk and one for dark – there wasn’t any of the heavy machinery you might expect. I resisted the temptation to plunge my hands into the molten chocolate since the tour was only beginning. Next time…
I was struck how simple the chocolate making room was. The back of their bars state they are making small batch bars, but this definitely was smaller than I was expecting. Most of the main work surface was covered with freshly roasted beans when we walked in – they were cooling in the chilly Scottish climate and making cracking noises as they did.
Ali started scooping the beans into the first machine, to break them apart. I did my part by grabbing a few, removing the shell and eating the nibs inside. Yum.
Once the beans were shattered, the next step was to separate the shell from the good stuff by winnowing in machine which is basically just fan – the heavy nibs fall to the bottom while the bits of shell and blown into a separate container and disposed of. Not that anything is wasted at The Chocolate Tree – the shells are also used as mulch at a local organic farm.
After passing through the winnowing machine twice, the separated, broken nibs are ready for conching – the grinding process which makes the familiar smooth chocolate. Usually the friction of the grinding provides enough heat to keep everything warm and moving, but in the midst of the Scottish winter, some heating lamps and a radiator helped things along.
The nibs were added to the conching machine about 1 kg at a time, and it took a while for anything of interest to happen – not surprising considering they are going to be in there for over forty hours in total.
The first sign that things were progressing was the smell. The rich aroma of chocolate got stronger and on further investigation, the contents were beginning to look less grainy and more like a paste. Some sugar was also added since this was going to be a batch of 50% chocolate, and that also increased the friction. I left at about the two hour mark and while there was still a long time to go, I was given the chance to taste it. It both looked and tasted like a really rich brownie batter, with a lovely amount of crunchiness remaining. I couldn’t help but think that they could sell tubs of this stuff because I’d buy one.
So while I only saw about 5% of the entire process timewise, I saw most of the important bits. Broken into stages, making chocolate isn’t really as complicated as you might think, but mastering the process is an artform. The Chocolate Tree have been making bean to bar chocolate for less than a year, and they are still learning as they go.
They talked about some of their missteps and let me taste some of them too. And most importantly, they are incredibly enthusiastic about the whole thing. Making their own chocolate is opening some exciting new doors for them – they have started using it in some of the handmade chocolates they sell in the shop and based on the Passionfruit & Coconut truffle I had, that is a very good thing.
Thanks to Ali and Friederike for being such charming hosts, and we’ll have some reviews of their bean to bar chocolate very soon.