Monday, April 14, 2014

Chocolate Makes the World Go Round

Organic cocoa beans at CocoaFair
Or if it doesn’t it certainly makes it a better place. Especially if it is artisan chocolate, made from ethically and organically grown beans. It was a Monday, the start of a short, one-week, pre-Easter school holiday and I decided that this was the perfect ‘take my girls to work with me’ opportunity. I was writing an article on artisan chocolate producers in the Western Cape, and CocoáFair invited me to come and look round. Usually all my kids see of my work is me sitting in front of the computer all day, so what better way to bring the world of writing to life than to see me gathering its raw material, in this case chocolate!

The first thing to greet us is a warm and velvety smell drifting alluringly up the steps to the doorway. It doesn’t take the glance through the glass walls to a tap splurging a stream of chocolate into a gleaming stainless steel machine to know we’re in the right place. CocoáFair is at the trendy Old Biscuit Mill in Cape Town’s Woodstock, where on Saturdays the Neighbourgoods Market is a bustle of flavour and hipness. On a Monday it is quieter, but there is still quite a vibe going on. The premises is under the old silo and the old grain chutes are incorporated into the decor.

We are whirled through the chocolate finishing room, through the chilly cooling room and to the start of the process, the inside room where the beans are first transformed into chocolate. Our guide is Marlon, who has been involved  in CocoáFair right from the start 4 years ago, acquiring that sixth sense needed to coax the cacao beans to perfection. We meet his babies and his mother-in-law, the shining specialist machines imported from Scotland that are one reason that there are so few artisan bean to bar producers. Besides the fact that the machinery is a huge investment in itself, the level of skill need to roast the beans to the exact point where they are warm and nutty without a shred of bitterness, isn’t something that can be acquired overnight. And that’s only the first stage of the highly skilled operation.

Marlon with his 'mother-in-law'

Marlon talks us through the process at a chocolate- fuelled pace and the kids and I learn all about the various processes. We crunch a roasted bean, see how the beans are separated out into nibs (the cocoa-loaded bit in the middle) and husks (which are then used by an ex-employee to make an exfoliating body-scrub, all part of their no-waste ethic). We taste the liquor (chocolate liquid and nothing to do with alcohol) mixed with cocoa butter and organic sugar in the process of being refined, which can take a couple of days, and promise faithfully not to drop anything into the mother-in-law, the imposing machine that refines the chocolate and which costs R35,000 just to open, drain and service once a year. It’s only ever used to produce dark chocolate and it’s a feat of mathematics to work out quantities when switching from 71% to 95% varieties.

A peek into the luscious swirl inside the machine

By the time we leave the inside room, with its chemical-free fly strips to catch any exotic bugs that might hatch out of the hessian sacks of beans (don’t worry any bugs and bacteria are naturally dealt with in the roasting process, without any need for contaminating chemicals), the chocolate has reached the stage of being big blocks ready to work with further. Big 1 kg slabs are sold on directly to hotels and restaurants and the rest is moulded into bars, Easter eggs and other delights. We meet Zuki, who has a delicate hand in making luscious chocolate truffles, and the four employees currently busy wrapping bars by hand. Part of the social enterprise aspect is creating jobs and training new employees gradually in the skills of chocolate. They start sweeping floors, move up to wrapping and then gradually become absorbed into the actual making.

Moulded Easter Eggs hand-painted by the CocoaFair team

Now we start to taste the finished chocolate. I hurry to taste, take notes and compare, but find that it all goes by in a flurry of Mmmmms. The 95% is incredibly smooth and not at all bitter, my girls both like the 71%, when they find most dark chocolates too strong. There’s also an 85%, a 65% and a sweet but still satisfyingly dark 56%. The percentage indicates the amount of cocoa solids and cocoa butter, the other part of the equation being pure organic sugar.

Then there are bars with added flavours, all of which have been carefully created to complement and not overwhelm the chocolate. The mint comes from Marlon’s garden to ensure it is organic, the bruised leaves then being infused in the chocolate for a clean and aromatic flavour. The chilli flavour was worked on for 3 weeks to get exactly 10s delay in the chilli glow coming through. There’s an espresso coffee, a hazelnut, a sea salt and some milk chocolates, the surprise hit being a subtle liquorice milk chocolate which is interestingly moreish. And the white chocolate has a warm creaminess that is more than just sugar, being made with a substantial amount of pure cocoa butter, no other vegetable fats, just milk and sugar added.

The staff are given a free rein on decorating the moulded chocolate Easter eggs and encouraged to experiment on developing new flavours of truffles and pralines. These are sold on the market stall and if they are a success become part of the range on offer.

Filling the chocolate moulds...chocolate on tap!

We receded out through the last room to the intense scent of orange and the sight of moulds being filled quickly and deftly with the molten magic. Then we were left with the hardest decision of the morning. Which of the bars we had tasted to buy for the rest of the family at home?

Thank you so much to Heinrich for inviting us, to Marlon for the fascinating tour and to the whole CocoáFair team for producing such delicious chocolate!

CocoáFair is at: The Old Biscuit Mill (under the silo), 373-375 Albert Road, Woodstock
Open: Mon-Fri 8-5pm  Sat 8-2pm
Tours: Saturday 10-2pm R50 pp and groups by appointment during the week
Tel: 021 447 7355


  1. Excellent and delicious post! Of course I have a question that has nothing to do with chocolate. You said something was "moreish". This intrigues me, because one of my favorite actors, Richard E. Grant, just recently came out with his own line of fragrance called "Jack", which he described as "lickably moreish". I thought that was just a Richard E. Grant-ism, something he made up to sound catchy. But now you've said "moreish" so I'm wondering if it's a British term that has slipped my notice, despite my unwavering attention to all phrases British.

    Please do explain! I know what the word means - I just want to know if it's a word that's regularly used by South Africans (Richard E. Grant is South African) or perhaps Brits?

  2. Hi Marcheline, Hmmm moreish has been part of my vocabulary as long as I can remember so it must be a British thing. I've heard it used around the place in South Africa too, though maybe by those who have British roots? Now you've asked I'll have to pay more attention and notice who uses it outside our family!

    1. I've looked it up online and it is listed in the Cambridge Dictionary! Pinkies up, everyone! 8-)


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