Taking a cab to see a chocolate guy in Mexico's Oaxaca City, I looked down and was mystified by the car's gearshift stick. Instead of poking straight up, it zigzagged: up, then over toward the cabbie's leg, then up again to the knob. I stopped thinking about it when I got to my destination, but as soon as I stepped inside, I wondered if the same person who'd come up with the stick had also designed some of the chocolate-making tools in the shop.
Most of the tools and appliances in the production area looked like they had been acquired by raiding the shelves of an eccentric grandparent's garage: a cheap slow cooker, a toaster oven, a countertop coffee bean roaster, a miniature table with “legs” made of what appeared to be doorstop springs.
It was intriguing, but I wasn't optimistic about the chocolate from this place, a tiny outfit called Mamá Pacha. When I later tasted a bar, though, it wasn't like tourist-town, mom-and-pop, chocolate-shop chocolate. Instead, it made me think of Paris. It made me think of Italy. It made me think of the high-end chocolate I'd eaten in those places. The people who run Mamá Pacha may have raided the garage shelf to build their production line, but they'd created world-class chocolate.
Oaxaca is a gem of a small city, and it is the de facto Indigenous and cultural capital of southern Mexico. The buildings are Spanish baroque, each one a riot of color. The art on the streets turns them into their own kind of open-air museum. In the heart of winter, trees bloom with periwinkle flowers. Being a piñata maker is a viable occupation. There is even a tropical fish store where you choose your fish while standing on the sidewalk, and the man on the other side of the tanks hands you a goldfish in a bag. Descend into this from a colder climate and this little city feels like a miracle.
Also, chocolate is a big deal here. Consuming it in one form or another has happened in this region for millennia.
Today, instead of the sweet, milky hot chocolate we drink in the United States, Oaxacans drink chocolate de agua, a pleasingly frothy and slightly bitter brew made with water. Locals like dunking chunks of bread into it. There's also the champurrado, a drink that combines corn flour, chocolate, and a hint of sugar. Chocolate is also used in many moles, the complex sauces that are among Oaxaca's most famous culinary exports.
When I returned to the shop, owner Antonio Michelena Gallardo greeted me and gestured around at the tools in the room: a breadbox-sized Behmor coffee roaster, a Champion juicer, a pachinko-board-looking thing with a Shop-Vac attached to it, a flour mill I'd seen in tortilla shops, that toaster oven and slow cooker, the weird little table with the doorstop legs, and against the back wall, Michelena Gallardo's folding Xiaomi ebike.
"Chocolate is straightforward. We focus on making bars. The process is intuitive," he said, and with my eyes lingering on that crappy slow cooker, I played along, hoping it would start to make sense soon.
Michelena Gallardo starts with the beans. His come from the nearby states of Tabasco and Chiapas. He can get his hands on local beans, but they're harder to source, mostly because growing cacao trees is just not as big of an industry in Oaxaca.
I asked if customers wouldn't prefer more of a local connection, and he responded with a question of his own.
"If your grandma in New York developed an apple pie recipe with apples from Washington,” he asked, “what would you do?" The question may have been rhetorical, but for the record I would scarf down a slice in a heartbeat.
The beans are roasted in the Behmor coffee bean roaster, a countertop device about the size of a box of high-top sneakers with a rotating cylindrical cage inside.
Michelena Gallardo likes the Behmor because he can control the temperature and even adjust it on the fly, all depending on the beans and how they're acting, but his brand loyalty is low.
"You could also use a convection oven to do the same thing," he says, while gesturing toward the toaster oven, which turns out to have a convection fan. Then he turns to the juicer.
"Once your beans are roasted, you need to crush them," he said, and having owned a Champion juicer, I wondered where he was heading. It turned out his juicer is his grinder. By just removing a filter from the Champion, he can quickly reduce each bean into nibs. He offered me a fresh-roasted nib, and I spent the rest of the interview hoping he'd offer more.
With the beans ground, it was time to get rid of those bitter, papery shells in among the nibs by using the pachinko-looking setup. Known as a winnower, his is a wide, tall wooden box with a plexiglass front that's divided into two main chambers—a narrow zigzag shaft on the left, next to a larger, more open space on the right. Michelena Gallardo fired up the little purple Shop-Vac, inserted the tube into a hole above the right side, and poured the ground, roasted beans into a funnel above the narrow column on the left. The nibs bounced down the zigzag and into a tray, but the papery bits of shell were sucked over to the right and fell into their own bin when the vacuum was switched off.
It's all so homemade-feeling. Even the winnower comes from a little outfit in Chiapas with a salamander for a logo. With this setup, Michelena Gallardo estimates that he makes 1,000 bars a month, most of which are sold in advance.
“When I started making chocolate, it was a hobby. I wasn't thinking of becoming a startup,” he says. “I sold to my friends. And bakeries. My investment was small-scale.” Yet just with what he has, he guesses he could triple his output.
We move the demonstration over to his stone mill. In it, an electric motor turns 5-inch-wide stone cylinders to crush the nibs into a fine paste. Chefs and cooks all over the country use these to crush corn for tortillas. The mills are so beloved that there's a sculpture called the Cruz de Piedra a block from Mamá Pacha that's made with those cylindrical stones. For generations before the arrival of the mills, the grinding was done by hand on a sloped stone known as a metate.
"You could use a food processor now, but this," he says, gesturing toward his Arenas-brand mill, "has more culture and history."
From here, the chocolate goes into a refiner. In it, two smooth granite wheels spin around a post, slowly crushing and liquefying the paste against its granite floor and combining it with the sweeteners he uses, like evaporated cocoa nectar, or palm tree flower nectar. ("It's like an endless metate," he muses.) The refiner is made for chocolate, but it's from an Indian company, the direct descendant of a “wet grinder” used to make food like dosas, idlis, and masalas. This tool is a key to fancy chocolate creation. It gets the rough bits out, grinding away for hours until the crystals in the chocolate are ground down to the level where they can be measured in microns.
Next, it's on to the cheap slow cooker. Michelena Gallardo uses it for tempering, a heating process that stabilizes the chocolate and keeps it from developing the white blotches of bloom that some cheaper bars can develop.
"When you let it cool after the refining process, the crystals are still all over the place," he says. His tempering happens in a custom insert above his slow cooker, which for his purposes is essentially a waterless double boiler. Chocolatiers can also “seed” the new batch with some older chocolate that's already been tempered.
"It's like you inoculate it," he says.
Finally, before it all goes into the fridge to set, the warm, liquid chocolate is poured into molds. At this point, the vibrator appears. I mean the vibrating table, which helps shake any air bubbles out of the chocolate. The “table” is a piece of wood, about the size of a thick album cover, with a door stopper at each corner, the tops of those attached to another board. Under that top board, is the tiny vibrating motor.
“What's the motor from again?” I asked.
“It's a low-quality massage chair spare part that I got on Amazon,” he replied. “I needed a vibrating source.”
I arched my brow, then asked how he came up with that hack.
“In Mexico, we're creative. You'll see lots of machines that were adapted like this. It's like the taxi drivers here who bend the gearshift stick,” he said. My mouth may have opened unconsciously at that point, as I hadn't mentioned my taxi gearshift wonderings to the chocolate guy.
“They bend it so they can fit a third person in the front seat.”
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