by Jenn Marcos-Tripoli
One of the things that I love about hosting wine tastings for guests at Travessia's tasting room is offering ideas of what to eat with our wines at home. While wine is obviously delicious to sip on it's own, the experience is elevated with the right time, place, people, and of course, the perfect pairing. Though most people wouldn't think to pair the light bodied wines of Massachusetts with the strong, complex flavors of chocolate, it surprises everyone when I bust out these gritty, dark chocolate morsels with funky flavors like guajillo chile or ginger to pair with a light, crisp local riesling... And it works really well!
I decided to visit Taza Chocolate Factory to tour their facilities in Somerville, Mass., for some of what I like to call "hands-on research" (i.e.- eating chocolate... lots of it!) on one of my favorite tasting room's venders. As some of you may know, we've been selling Taza's Mexicano Discs for over a year and offering daily tastings of their dark chocolates along with our wines. I felt I was overdue to check out this local chocolate legend-in-the-making and learn more about what it takes to make authentic Mexican-style chocolates, and what better time to do this than around Valentine's Day? My husband, Eric, was definitely happy to tag along.
If there's one thing you should know about this company, it is that they are dedicated. After a trip to Oaxaca ("wuh-HA-kuh"), Mexico, and tasting stone-ground Mexican chocolate for the first time, founder Alex Whitmore was inspired to start a chocolate factory. He started out of his apartment, then over time acquired and refurbished vintage equipment, bought factory space in Somerville, and forged relationships directly with cacao growers in Bolivia, Belize and the Dominican Republic in order to get the best possible quality cacao for their chocolate nibs, discs, and bars. All of Taza's products are certified Direct Trade (an even more "fair" arrangement than Fair Trade), Organic, Vegan, Gluten-Free, and Kosher... And so delicious! They put Hershey & Willy Wonka to shame, in my opinion.
Our factory tour guide was Ayala, a lively, bubbly lady who was seriously passionate about chocolate! The small tour group had an age-range from eight to eighty, and we spent a whole hour weaving through the rooms, learning about all the ins and outs of Taza. Everything from the trees the cacao fruit (yes, fruit!) grows on, to the finished product being shipped to all 50 states and around the world from this little local factory!
There were lots of unique pieces of equipment and many steps to their chocolate-making process. Very rarely will a chocolate company make chocolate from bean-to-bar, but Taza is definitely one of them! Once the dried, fermented beans arrive at Taza, they roast and winnow the beans in small batches, which separate tasty cacao "nibs" from their shells. Instead of wasting the shells which aren't used in the chocolate-making process, they are sold to local businesses who use the shells to create craft beers, teas, and even mulch - gaining major sustainability brownie points in my book! After the winnowing process, they grind the nibs using a Molina, or Mexican stone mill, that uses hand-carved granite stones to create a thick chocolate-y paste, and then add any real, whole ingredients (cinnamon, coconut, vanilla beans, spicy chiles, you name it!) and organic cane sugar to a desired sweetness, then refine and temper the chocolate to different consistencies for the different types of chocolates they produce.
This made for an excellent day trip, was totally family-friendly, affordable, educational, and most of all, fun! The tour was $5 per person, lasted about an hour, and everyone I met at the factory were knowledgeable and super sweet (pun intended). Tours book up quick, so purchase your tickets online here about a week in advance!
A few of my favorite highlights from the tour:
-Having to wear hair (and beard) nets, because there aren't many things more hilarious than a beard net. Don't we look stylish?
-Much like fermenting grapes to produce wine, the beans of the cacao fruit are fermented to produce complex chocolate flavors. Some cacao growers will even take the flesh of the cacao fruit, called "baba de cacao" and produce cacao wine with it for their families! Where can I get some of that?!
-I also loved that Taza's company store featured items made using Taza chocolate from other companies from near and far... From Q's Nuts in Somerville to Big Spoon Roasters in Durham, North Carolina! It's really great to see small businesses support fellow small businesses.
-Pro-Tip: Mexicanos Discs make excellent Oaxacan-style hot cocoa, called Taza de Chocolate. Break apart one of your favorite flavored discs in a saucepan with a mug-full of your choice of milk (whole, skim, almond, soy, rice, whatever you want!), and whisk until warm and frothy. My favorite combinations are Salted Almond discs with almond milk and their Cinnamon discs with whole milk, yum! Taza even carries hand-carved, one-of-a-kind wooden chocolate whisks made from small-scale venders in Oaxaca called molinillos ("moh-lee-NEE-yos") which you can use to foam the milk. I thoroughly enjoyed them!
After the tour and buying copious amounts of "Factory Limited" chocolate (limited batches you can only buy at the Somerville location or online... I had to buy the "Mi Cariño" gift set... SO GOOD!), we stopped by Flour Bakery about a mile up the road on Mass Ave. for a post-chocolate coma snack, and I was pleasantly surprised to see another Travessia favorite, Shy Brother's Farm, on the menu! The Tartine special with their artisanal Cloumage curd was fantastic! It reminded me that my next "field trip" must be to their local cheese farm in Westport.
Until next time, cheers!