It’s my birthday week, and I wanted to treat myself to something predictably wonderful for my weekly “new something.” Milestones like birthdays are emotionally challenging. I’m wistful remembering past birthdays when Mark was here to celebrate with me. Since I’m on my own now, I decided to create my own birthday event, and to invoke the magical power of chocolate.
I’ve always enjoyed all sorts of factory tours. We know so little about most of the stuff we use and consume in our daily lives. On a factory tour, you see the work, skill and magic that goes into making those everyday items you take for granted. I watched metalworkers fashion delicate, intricate jewelry at the Holly Yashi factory. At the Tillamook plant, I learned about all things cheese. (The only factory I wouldn’t visit again is the Yummy Chummies factory in Anchorage. If you have a dog, you know Yummy Chummies are the salmon dog treats your dog loves, but as a downside your pockets exude essence of fish. Multiply that smell a hundredfold and you’ll have a sense of what you experience if you visit the production plant.)
Perhaps everyone in Seattle except me already knew about the Theo Chocolate Factory Tour. “Yes, it’s great,” they said. “And there are lots of samples.” Hmmm…
The Theo chocolate factory is located in Fremont, one of Seattle’s quirkiest neighborhoods. (Within a block is a whiskey distillery that also provides tours and samples, but that’s another adventure.) Before you enter the red brick Theo building, from about a block away, you can smell it: an unmistakable dark thick aroma of chocolate.
When I arrived (without the prohibited stilettos, fur and glitter, of course), I donned my attractive blue hair net and ran a lint brush over my body in preparation for the tour. Our group was ushered into the green “rain forest” room draped with paper leaf garlands. Murals about chocolate production covered the walls. The dense chocolate atmosphere was overpowering. We were breathing chocolate. Essence of chocolate rolled around us and layered itself onto our skin. As we absorbed chocolate through our pores, Katrina, our tour guide, talked to us about cocoa beans and the process of extracting and preparing the seeds that will eventually become chocolate, and also about the deplorable conditions some chocolate harvesters (including children) have to tolerate, especially in Africa. We were told that Theo Chocolates, organic and free trade, provides a sustainable wage to its harvest and production workers. (Theo, by the way, isn’t a person’s name. It’s short for the Latin name for chocolate, theobroma cacao.)
And while Katrina talked, we ate.
Large wooden bowls of chocolate chunks were passed up and down our aisles, like church offering vessels, except of course, we were taking out and not putting in. Katrina invited us to take as much as we liked, but she warned us that a lot of samples were coming our way. We might want to pace ourselves.
Our first chocolate was an 85% dark chocolate that we were encouraged not to chew, but just to let melt slowly in our mouths. It was delightfully bitter and left the back of my tongue tingling. I could tell from the looks on some faces that it wasn’t universally well liked. Not everyone is a fan of very dark chocolate.
Katrina talked about growing and preparing cocoa beans, fermentation (chocolate is a fermented food!), and the difference between Congolese (nutty) and Peruvian (fruitier) chocolate. (It’s all about the “terroir,” the composition of the soil.) She circulated our second bowl of chocolate: a 70% dark chocolate with sea salt to bring forth the flavor and cut bitterness. Smiles all around; this was better received.
More bowls were being passed down the aisles: a 70% dark chocolate with raspberries, and then another, this time chunks with coconut. I was taking very small pieces, but I was already starting to get chocolate overload. The woman sitting next to me—a somberly dressed grandmother, part of a three-generational family group—was taking a handful of chocolate from each bowl. I love chocolate, but I am clearly a lightweight.
We moved as a group to a glass enclosure in the middle of the factory floor. Here, the saturated chocolate air was layered with a sharp vinegary smell, the byproduct of the production process going on around us. Katrina explained the purpose of the various vats and machines surrounding us before we hurried through the super-heated factory area to the kitchen.
We were corralled into a central space to avoid interference with the kitchen staff, who were whipping chocolate in stainless steel bowls and pouring mixtures into molds. Our samples here were various confections filled with ganache (chocolate and cream mixed together, like the inside of a truffle).
In the end, I couldn’t do it. I had to pass up the last sample, a piece of a toffee bar resting on a bed of dark chocolate. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’d had just too much chocolate. Yes, fellow chocolate lovers, there actually is such a state.
As the tour ended, Katrina led us into the factory retail store where, in our sugar-high daze, we bought more chocolate. There I discovered the ultimate treat: confections infused with Oban, Cragganmore, Lagavulin and Talisker. Yep, artisan chocolate infused with single malt scotch. Happy birthday, me. It’s a wonderful world.