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Photograph of a longitudinal conche at the Felchlin factory in Schywz, Swtizerland.

As an invited guest and featured speaker at the 100th anniversary celebration for major chocolate company Max Felchlin AG in Switzerland last week, I was reminded that chocolate didn't possess the smooth, creamy texture we take for granted today until Rudolphe Lindt invented the conche in 1879.

The Swiss are famous for producing chocolates with a very fine "mouth feel," achieved through a number of manufacturing secrets, last of which is "conching." Perhaps apocryphal, the creation story of the conche says that Lindt, well known for his chocolate manufacturing techniques, left his lab one Friday afternoon to go hunting for the weekend, but forgot to turn off a piece of machinery. When he returned to the lab on Monday morning, he found the machine still running and the chocolate inside, transformed.

The conching process delivers several important improvements to chocolate's taste and texture.

The Conching Process

  1. Any water left in the chocolate evaporates.
  2. Any remaining and unwanted volatile aromatic (such as residual acetic acid after fermentation) also evaporates.
  3. Any clumps of cocoa particles (called aggregates) break down into individual particles.
  4. Cocoa butter coats all of the cocoa particles.

Life Before the Conche

Prior to the invention of the conche, chocolate had a slightly gritty texture because of the cocoa and sugar particles. But actually, large particles can offer an advantage, especially in warm climates. In most cacao-growing countries, the traditional style of chocolate-making features this gritty texture. This type of chocolate does not become all gooey melty (yes, that's the technical term) at higher temperatures. Instead, it will get soft, but not ooze.

This is desirable when high temperatures are in the mid to upper 80s and there's no air conditioning. One clue: you might get a coarse chocolate that goes by the phrase, para la taza, or "for the cup." That means for drinking, not eating.

The Chocolate Texture

Some companies, especially Italian ones, have made a virtue out of this texture. Sicilian ones specifically, especially those from Modica. Two of the best known companies in Modica are Antica Dolceria Bonajuto and Laboratorio Dolciario Artigianale Don Giuseppe Puglisi. Here in the U.S., Taza Chocolate in Boston is focusing on this style of chocolate using exclusive machinery made in Mexico. Eating any of these chocolates is an acquired taste for most people.

This is why I was so surprised that Felchlin produced a "crudo" bar as one of its two special chocolates introduced for the centennial celebration. But true to the Swiss style, the sugar particles are slightly refined and the bar is not as coarse. More interesting, there is a conched version of the same chocolate called "concha."

Comparing the Crudo and the Concha

From an educational perspective, comparing the taste of these two chocolates is very illuminating. It provides the first demonstration, to my knowledge, of how the conching process influences sugar particle size and affects overall chocolate flavor and production. From my experience, when tasting both the crudo and the concha, the crudo flavor and texture overwhelms the character of the beans. Conching, instead, creates a smooth texture, but also reveals the complex, tantalizing, warm, and spicy notes in the chocolate, completely hidden in the crudo.

Now you can tell people you like crudo—even if you don't like raw fish.

About the author: Clay Gordon has been a professional chocolate critic since 2001. His first book on chocolate, Discover Chocolate was selected as a finalist in the International Association of Culinary Professionals' 2008 Cookbook of the Year Awards. A serious chocolate educator, Clay has created and moderates an online community for chocophiles and aspiring chocophiles - The Chocolate Life.

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