It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is something magical about chocolate.
So, even as our move back to Canada loomed, I knew I had to get to Dandelion to check out their chocolate tour. On an ordinary day, this cafe and production facility on one of Valencia’s busiest blocks is compelling, from the sumptuous scent of chocolate in the air to the crumbles of single-origin bars for sampling to the goldfish bowl piled high with marshmallows destined for mugs of hot chocolate. It’s well-loved by visitors and locals alike, I learned, as I met the eight other tour participants, and we kicked off the tour by tasting cocoa nibs and three varieties of chocolate. Much like at a wine tour, our guide pointed out differences in the flavours of each bar; all were tasty, but the strikingly fruity notes (raspberry!) in the Madagascar bar caught at my taste buds. Hooked, I followed our tour guide past what he jokingly referred to as the “bomb doors” into the bean room.
This section of the facility is separated so stringently because it falls under agricultural production, not food preparation, and is an isolated location for the Dandelion staff to sort through the cacao beans and discard the ones that are too old, damaged, or infected to turn into chocolate. It was surprising to see what else had fallen into the massive hemp sacks; with a wry grin, our tour guide went through a shadow box filled with marbles, twigs, rocks, and a disturbingly sharp-looking razor blade (all beans are sorted by hand!) On a less disconcerting note, we learned a lot about cacao’s life cycle before it is harvested; I learned that the actual fruit of a cacao nut is fibrous, like the inside of a pumpkin, and tastes something like a lychee, but didn’t get the chance to try the smoothie on the cafe menu that featured it. (If you have, thoughts?)
It was also interesting to learn that plantation workers will graft cacao trees together, which helps boost productivity and disease resistance, and that, much like wine grapes, plants are assessed in part by their terroir: how the climate, soil, and tending style eventually impacts the beans’ flavour. Although the new American craft chocolate movement is fairly young, with about 10 years of renewed attention to chocolate’s ingredients, terroir, and connection through all aspects of the supply chain, it is passionate. I loved seeing how that passion was steered into cobbling together small-scale chocolate-making machines before such things became commercially available. Most of Dandelion’s production line is now composed of purpose-built machines, our guide had a soft spot for the bean cracker and winnower, the latter of which was hacked together largely from, he told us, a chocolate fountain and its augur.
From there, the cacao beans are ground and refined, and sugar is added 1 to 2 hours after the paste starts spinning. Once that step is complete, the molten chocolate is cooled and stored as a block, usually for around two weeks, until the chocolate-makers are ready to make bars with it.
The aging process is actually helpful, here; it makes the tempering process, where the chocolate is repeatedly heated and cooled to make it shelf stable, go more smoothly. After tempering, the chocolate is poured into molds, and carefully shaken to pop any air bubbles. Once the chocolate is set, it is wrapped in foil by hand, and then sent through a nifty-sounding (but unfortunately not seen) 1950s-era wrapping machine, ten bars at a time, for packaging.
Our tour wrapped up with our guide taking back our hair nets and trading them, much to our joy, with vouchers for a free hot chocolate. It was an oddly hot day in the city, so I tucked mine into my purse, with intent to return.
Unfortunately, my return to Canada happened before I could do so, but I can speak from past experience that it is a deceptively decadent treat, despite its petite appearance, and definitely worth looking up if your feet take you to the Mission.
That said, whether you visit Dandelion for the tour, to meet with friends, or perhaps to take their Chocolate 101 course, the Mission hot chocolate, with notes of cinnamon and almonds, is also delicious, as is the Dulce de Leche bar, which I may miss, already.