Chocolate has saved the holiday season more times than we can count. Need a last-minute gift idea? Chocolate. Forgot to pick up the turkey? Chocolate. Had a meltdown in the mall’s parking lot? You get it. Chocolate is the best.
“There's nothing like it — it changed humanity,” declares Simryn Fenby, chocolatier at Toronto-based Avoca Chocolates, which recently opened its third Toronto location on the Ossington strip. Fenby co-owns Avoca with her mom, Noni, the head chocolatier. An antioxidant (sometimes), a peace offering, a sweet treat — chocolate makes days merry and bright. But how do you actually make chocolate? We’ll save the explaining for Fenby and the snacking for us.
How do you make chocolate?
“First, you start with fermented and dried cacao beans, which are ground into tiny pieces called nibs. These are then roasted like coffee beans and heated until they liquefy. Depending on what kind of chocolate it is, you add sugar and milk. You're also going to add an emulsifier called soy lecithin, which preserves the texture and flavour. Cacao is a very bitter bean, but how we manipulate it makes it into something edible and delicious.”
Where does cacao grow?
Cacao grows in different humid climates from the Amazon to West Africa. Historians have traced the origins of cacao back to the ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations of Mesoamerica. But in recent years, archaeologists at an Ecuadorian dig site found evidence that the earliest use of cacao occurred 5,300 years ago in South America.
What are the main types of chocolate?
“When it's pure dark chocolate, there is no dairy, so it's completely vegan. The darker the better — bitter and better!” says Fenby. Dark chocolate often lists percentages on the package. The higher the percentage, the purer the chocolate — so 100 per cent dark chocolate should have zero sweetener.
“This is the most popular chocolate. Milk chocolate has enough dairy and sugar to make it sweet, but not too sweet that your teeth hurt.”
White chocolate doesn’t have to contain any cacao nibs; instead, it’s typically made with cacao butter (fat extracted from the cacao bean), milk and sugar. “I don’t consider it real chocolate. It’s all dairy and all sugar in my mind,” admits Fenby.
What determines the style of chocolate?
“Our chocolate is Belgian, meaning the process is done in Belgium (it’s the second-best process in the world), but the beans are Fairtrade cacao beans from Brazil. The style depends on how you roast the cacao beans,” says Fenby. At Avoca Chocolates, they spend a lot of time tempering the chocolate, which means you adjust the temperature so it’s more malleable. Then it can be painted, moulded and rolled into truffles. “Our tempering is in the Belgian style, as well. Temperature shifts the taste a lot,” she says.
What do you consider the best process for making chocolate?
“Valrhona, which is from France. They roast the beans in a very unique way that’s difficult to replicate. They roast them multiple times, and their chocolate comes out almost a little smoky, like a really nice scotch.”
What does 'ethical chocolate' mean?
“I take it to mean Fairtrade — paying farmers a wage that you would pay someone in Canada or America for what they’re doing in Latin America. That also means having adults, not children, on the scene, and not forcing people to work unethical hours. It means having a standard of treatment and payment, as well. We only deal with Fairtrade suppliers. It's a worldwide certification."
How do you like to enjoy chocolate?
“I love truffles! I like when chocolate is mixed with cream and liquor. I’m a drinker — so I like dark chocolate brandy and dark chocolate whisky."
What are some great chocolate pairings?
“I think you can pair chocolate with anything. Wines obviously go really well. It ranges: dark chocolate with cabernets, milk chocolate with pinot noir or gewurztraminer, and white chocolate with a rosé or riesling."
Where to get the best chocolate in Toronto
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This family-run chocolate shop has grown to three locations across the city. The newest location on Ossington is one of our favourite places around the holidays because the window displays glitter with miniature trains and whimsical figurines. They specialize in kaleidoscopic Belgian truffles, but don’t miss their hot chocolate bombs.
Chocolat de Kat
824 St Clair Ave. W.
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More like tiny works of art, the confections inside this Hillcrest Village gem are too pretty to eat. However, that’s not going to stop us from biting into their delicate, hand-painted chocolate shells and freaking out over their soft truffle-like centres bursting with fun flavours like avocado toast (seriously), mulled wine, and rum nog.
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For that bean-to-bar experience, SOMA does it all, from roasting the cacao beans and refining chocolate into shiny pieces to pouring hot cups of soothing hot chocolate. Their Mayan hot chocolate is an ode to the first way chocolate was consumed. It’s dark, rich and has a kick of chili peppers, which could cure any holiday headache.