Passion and patience make the sweetest gift
Here's the perfect way to express your love on Valentine's Day, but you need to concentrate, says Victoria Mary Clarke
On a ridiculously freezing February afternoon, in a shiny stainless steel kitchen somewhere in Glasnevin, a lady in a white lab coat is handing me a blue hairnet.
"Making chocolate is a totally humbling experience," she remarks.
I am rather taken aback.
St Valentine's Day is almost upon us, and I like to think that I am imaginative, as well as delicious, and so I came up with the genius idea of presenting my beloved with a truly romantic gift to demonstrate my devotion.
The unique and thoughtful offering of fancy artisan chocolates handmade by me, for a man who nightly devours boxes of ordinary chocolates, and could do with something more classy.
The person who tells me that chocolate is humbling is Kelli Marjolet. Kelli and husband Patrick are also known as the Proper Chocolate Company, which is artisan bean to bar - and they have agreed to train me in this age-old art.
When I signed up, my motivation was not entirely unselfish.
Ever since I read Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I have longed to experience a real-life chocolate factory and to have an excuse to eat the stuff all day.
I also know that Ireland is on the cusp of an artisanal epiphany in the chocolate arena, the like of which we have already seen in craft beers, cheese-making and coffee, and I will be very much ahead of the game and able to bore people at D8 dinner parties - if I learn the different types of chocolate bean and become an authority on the subject.
I didn't consider that chocolate making might be in any way challenging. But clearly I didn't think. Because these people are not messing around. Kelli and Patrick instruct me to scrub up and put on the hairnet and gloves before I am allowed into the operating theatre. There has been a crisis. A chocolate "seed" has gone missing and a new one will now have to be made.
I watch attentively as Patrick carefully pours melted chocolate on to a marble slab and starts deftly manipulating it between two metal slicers.
"Within the context of tempering, a chocolate seed is a block of pre-tempered chocolate used to crystallise a larger quantity of melted chocolate into a desired tempered state," he explains.
I watch and wonder if I will be required to know how to do this very impressive slicing thing, and if so, how I will manage it.
"There are three main reasons why it is desirable to temper chocolate," he carries on (in a French accent)
"For its appearance, when chocolate is tempered it will reflect light and appear shiny instead of dull and powdery and unappealing. For its snap, tempered chocolate is made of strongly bonded hexagonal crystals attached to one another as opposed to untempered chocolate which is soft and melty and has an heterogeneous crystal distribution." (I don't want my chocolate to be heterogeneous, so I am riveted.) "And for shelf-life, tempered chocolate is less porous - this reduces the rate of oxidation of the cocoa butter," he says.
"This is the technical stuff," Kelli tells me. "Patrick is a nerd, he loves this stuff."
The seed, when it is finished, is basically a misshapen and oddly unappealing lump, which can now be used to communicate with other chocolate to teach it to form the good crystals.
It is immersed in a big pot of melted chocolate and I am allowed to stir it while Patrick tests its temperature until it reaches exactly the desired one.
I have chosen to make milk chocolate-covered gianduja (which, in case you are ignorant, is a type of ganache).
The centres are made of hazelnut that tastes like Nutella and it will be my first task to dip the centres into the melted chocolate and then carefully manoeuvre them on to the paper, and then to sprinkle them with roasted hazelnuts.
They hand me the precision implement, a pointy fork-like gadget, and supervise me as I perform the task.
I notice that I am no longer breathing and suspect that they aren't either.
"Making chocolate requires tremendous amounts of patience," Kelli assures me. "There are no short-cuts."
I plop my first chocolate down for inspection. And wait. It is like Masterchef.
"Very good," Patrick says, eventually. "You are a natural." I breathe, and then immediately become aware that the next one is disappearing into the pot. "You definitely have to concentrate," Kelli says.
The chocolate beans come to Ireland in big hessian sacks from Ghana, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
The beans are not actually beans, they are seeds and they grow in pods from which they are extracted by hand, after which they are fermented and then they are dried. When they arrive, they need to be sorted by hand,. The ones that are cracked will burn if they are roasted.
The sorting takes hours and is very tedious, though it would probably make a good meditation if you like that kind of thing. We sort a small bowl and I admit I am bored. Then we roast the beans in an air fryer, and when they are roasted we crack them and make cacao nibs.
Kelli gives me three different kinds to taste and I am thrilled when I can identify the different flavours, and feel certain that within weeks I could do blind tastings.
The nibs are milled, then the chocolate has to be aged to eliminate volatile flavours - which means that my Valentine's chocolates are made from pre-aged stuff, and I am cheating a little bit. But they did take all day to make, and that involved tremendous precision.
As I parcel them up neatly in a box, I am overwhelmed with a sense of satisfaction that money could not possibly buy - and I ask myself if a million red roses could even come close as a devotional offering. And I wonder what he has got for me.
© Victoria Mary Clarke 2017