There’s a passage in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that resonates loudly with every child (and adult) with a love of chocolate. It’s the scene in the Tasting Room where Augustus Gloop, unable to control his gargantuan appetite in the presence of such deliciousness, falls upon his knees to gobble from the churning chocolate river. We all know what happens next too.
Naturally, I have to explain to five-year-old Jack that although we’re visiting a chocolate factory, there won’t be a magical tasting room or chocolate river. ‘But mummy,’ he says reasonably, ‘can’t I see it if I promise not to touch?’ Thankfully, his initial disappointment is forgotten once we actually get to ChoCo’a and meet Chef Fredric Legras, a French executive pastry chef who has worked with the likes of Gordon Ramsey. At six foot six and thoroughly jolly, Jack immediately decides he’s way more impressive than Willie Wonka anyway.
‘Welcome to my pantry!’ Chef laughs, once we’ve donned our hair nets and aprons and entered the ChoCo’a store room. Huge sacks of sugar and massive slabs of Belgian chocolate (weighing 10kg each) are stacked from floor to ceiling. We’re told that at any one time, there are at least three tons of chocolate at the site, and that ChoCo’a produces more than 22 tons of the stuff per year. We all decide it’s a good thing the air conditioning works well, or we’d be swimming in it like the Prince of Pondicherry.
‘We’re actually not a factory, because we don’t handle the cocoa beans,’ Chef explains as we make our way into the processing room. ‘We’re more of a production plant because we bring in the raw chocolate from Belgium and transform it with all sorts of ingredients, like spices, honey, nuts, caramels, biscuits…’ By now, we’re both drooling from the warm chocolate aromas as we walk past shelves stacked with all sorts of delicacies and large churning vats of white, milk and dark chocolate.
Its heaven and we’re all invited to take a sniff from the largest barrel where we’re informed the chocolate is in its final heating phase before being molded and cooled. ‘Handling chocolate is very scientific,’ says Chef. ‘First, we heat it to 45 degrees for two hours, then we cool it to 28 degrees for four hours, and finally, we bring it back up to 32 degrees. This process ensures that the chocolate will be shiny and snappy once it sets. In other words, it will be perfect.’
We ask him all sorts of chocolatey questions. Then Jack wants to know why it goes ‘funny and white’ if left in the car and then put in the fridge. ‘That just means it’s been heated and the cocoa butter has separated a bit. It’s still fine so don’t waste it. Next time, why not re-melt it in some milk and whisk it into a delicious hot chocolate?’ says Chef.
We’re informed that chocolate keeps for ages, although the official shop shelf life for it in the UAE is one year. ‘It can be stored for seven years and still be perfectly fresh because there’s no water in it,’ he says. ‘It probably keeps longer than that actually. I’ve been a chef for 16 years and have never seen a ‘bad’ piece of chocolate.’
Once we’ve visited all the hi-tech gadgets – a favourite is the wrapping machine which churns out 600 neatly wrapped chocolate squares per minute – we move onto the practical part of the tour, which includes whisking up a caramel and chocolate brownie mousse, and dipping all sorts of biscuits and treats into melted chocolate and decorating them. We enjoy the piping bits the best, especially when we get to squirt the mousse into the containers (and a few other places as well). Chef takes it all in his stride. He’s not grumpy at all (like chefs are supposed to be) and insists we taste everything we’re using.
After that, we’re both buzzing and Jack begins to jump out from behind tables, scaring unsuspecting chocolate makers by shouting ‘Booh!’ It’s time to go. I can already see trays of expensive truffles flying through the air and biting the dust. We leave with our swag packed up neatly in a ChoCo’a box, all ready to share with the rest of the family when we get home. All in all, it’s been a sweet afternoon.
To book a tasty tour at the ChoCo’a factory in Al Quoz, (single or school field trip visits) call Reem on 04 340 9013; www.chocoa.ae