Chocolatiers must mediate between opposing forces, balancing the various flavors of sweet, dark, heavy, and light in their chocolate confections. The director of one of France’s premier chocolate schools, Frédéric Bau describes the challenge succinctly: ‘The chocolatier must use incredibly rich ingredients to make a tiny delicate dessert that does not feel at all heavy, that melts in your mouth like a cloud’. Bau is a polyglot with winning dimples and a contagious, warm enthusiasm; he is one chocolatier who has mastered the challenge of the profession. At the school he directs, Bau and his equipe of teachers instruct hundreds of students a year to craft deceptively light temptations of the palate.
Each year, students from over 40 different nations come to the Valrhona chocolate company’s school, called simply the ‘Ecole’, in the town of Tain L’Hermitage to learn about everything chocolate. Most hours of the day and night, Tain L’Hermitage is filled with a dark chocolate aroma thanks to the Valrhona plant (the air there has a mood-enhancing effect). The ‘Ècole’ recently marked its 12th anniversary, and this spring inaugurated a new larger building on Valrhona grounds to house the ‘Ecole’s’ lessons in chocolate candies, baking, confectionery, and ice creams. In 2001, 280 students attended the school, but with the inauguration of the new building, attendance in 2002 is expected to rise to just over 700 students. Courses last two to three days, and the maximum class size is 10 students.
Director Bau started working as a pastry chef 23 years ago, and was the first chef at the ‘Ecole’ when it opened in 1989 (at that time, it was known as the ‘Ecole du Chocolat Valrhona’). His goal as director of the school has always been ‘to be an ambassador of good, beautiful and unusual things to eat’. Wandering among the classrooms of the Ecole, you bump into chefs and students doing all sorts of good and beautiful things with Valrhona chocolate: poring over botanical diagrams of flowers as they try to catch the perfect line of a curving stamen in a chocolate sculpture; carefully constructing tiny pastries by slipping a halo of hard dark chocolate obliquely around a fresh raspberry (making the confection look like a tiny planet Saturn ready to orbit around a kumquat); and scooping out ovals of chocolate ice cream with teaspoons.
When teaching a pastry chef how to work with chocolate, Bau emphasizes that ‘respect for the ingredient is the most important part of the process, if you lose individual ingredients in the mixture, you lose the strength’. Students at the ‘Ecole’ are taught not to bury the flavor of a delicate milky chocolate with fruit and nut flavors; that it is better to stay simple and let the quality of the primary materials shine through. That advice is especially true if you are working with great chocolate.
The Valrhona chocolate company is one of the few remaining small and medium producers in Europe (with 350 employees and 6000 tons of production per year) that make chocolate from scratch: starting with the raw cocoa beans. Most chocolate producers today use ‘chocolate liquor’ – an unsweetened mix of toasted and partially refined cocoa beans melted in cocoa butter – as their primary material. The first step in chocolate production at Valrhona is the roasting of fermented cocoa beans. The dense and slightly damp center of the cocoa bean becomes crumbly and shiny in the roasting, and the beans loose the white fuzz left by the fermentation.
The beans are then roughly crunched, with enough breakage to allow the separation of outer membrane from the cocoa bean. A wind blower separates the kernel from the chaff, and the dark kernels are ground by a series of seven rollers into a fine dark powder. The cocoa naturally contains a high percentage of cocoa butter, and when the ground powder is heated the fat melts and it turns the liquid consistency of heavy syrup – this melted blend is the ‘chocolate liquor’ used as a base material by most chocolate producers. The ‘chocolate liquor’ is mixed with rough cane sugar, and is then conched for three days. In this process, the roller passes back and forth in a warmed vat of the mixture. Conching makes the chocolate creamier and more intense – and transforms the rough melted chocolate liquor into something we recognize as chocolate.
Valrhona is one of the few chocolate producers to craft chocolates from exclusive geographic regions, called ‘cru’ chocolates. By using beans exclusively from Madagascar, Jamaica, Ecuador, Ghana, and Trinidad, among others, Valrhona creates chocolates with terroir. The ‘cru’ chocolates are surprisingly diverse, the Madagascar ‘cru’ is nearly black and densely brittle while Ecuadorian ‘cru’ is lighter in color with a mild nutty taste.
As a primary material, Valrhona chocolate is famed as one of the best in the world. At the ‘Ecole’, Bau’s motto is ‘to make the best with the best’, meaning he teaches students to learn to maximize their results with high-quality ingredients. He explains though that using the best ingredients does not guarantee the best results, confessing to ‘have made many terrible cakes with Valrhona chocolate’. Fine ingredients alone do not guarantee a good result, the chocolatier and pastry chef must know their ingredients well in order to produce fine results. Bau encourages all ‘Ecole’ students to know their materials and to select them with care. In the 1980s, he explains, dark chocolate became much more popular for chefs than milk chocolate. Chocolate companies began to vaunt their 70 or 80 cocoa percentage the way gasoline companies brag about their octane levels. Bau contests the widespread acceptance of dark chocolate as the best chocolate, calling this trend the ‘war of the percentage’. He urges the students who pass through the ‘Ecole’ to look beyond the percentage and taste what they enjoy and what works best in their confectionary.
In the upcoming years, the range and type of students attending ‘Ecole’ will broaden. Bau has witnessed a growth in the number of women attending the school during his tenure. In addition, the school has begun to offer courses tied to the field of chocolate without being distinctly linked to production such as the sale of chocolate and chocolate appreciation. These new classes are offered alongside the usual curriculum of courses for restaurant chefs, pastry chefs, and chocolatiers. The changing definition of chocolate in cuisine will probably have some effect on the school’s curriculum in the future. The meal at the recent inauguration of the ‘Ecole’ was a showcase for stretching the definition of chocolate: chocolate and meat-filled wonton were served swimming in a cup of beef stock; chocolate and tomato gazpacho was passed with hot buttered crostini for dunking; and stunning combination of seared foie gras was presented with a roulade of peppers and chocolate. The desserts followed more traditional lines of flavor combination: delicate cakey petits fours; cones of dense cream pudding flecked with vanilla bean and white chocolate in orange syrup; and quince marmalade topped with sweet almond milk served with a swizzle stick of white chocolate. Bau designed the Inauguration menu to tease the palate and the eye – and best of all, he balanced the flavors of each and every tempting morsel so they melted into eager mouths just ‘like clouds’.
Anya Fernald, winner of a Watson Fellowship for the study of artisan cheese in Europe and Africa in 1998, has worked for the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Sicily. She currently works for Slow Food.