By Amihai Zippor
(Jerusalem Post) In 2008 Jo Zander was anticipating roasting cacao beans in the pantry of his Ma’aleh Hever home just past Hebron, anticipating his next batch of dark chocolate. Looking outside his window, the micro-batch chocolate maker saw an old dryer and had an epiphany: Schematically the machine could be used as a large roaster. He mentioned the idea to his old friend and new business partner, Zev Stender, who found one online with the needed specifications.
Stripping the dryer down, they replaced the thermostat with an oven thermometer and Holy Cacao, the Middle East’s only “bean-to-bar” artisan chocolatiers, had expanded capabilities. Though it didn’t take long before the dryer exploded into a mild inferno, they knew they were on to something when the man they bought their new machine from told them, “You’re not a true roaster until you have a fire.”
Bean to bar chocolate is a craft going back centuries, which has seen a revival in the past several years mainly in the US. Until the Spanish conquered the Aztecs in the 16th century, cacao was indigenous to South America and was used as a drink, a cooking ingredient and even a form of currency. Since its spread across Europe from Spain, nobility and the upper class paid particular attention to the flavorful fruit from prized trees in particular regions.
“Just as wine is Sauvignon or Merlot, depending on where the grapes are grown, the taste of our chocolate is influenced by where the cacao was imported from,” says Zander. “It’s a magical tree; and when we transform the fruit into chocolate, the origin of the cacao is essential to its flavor.”
Explaining further, Zander notes that the bean-to-bar process leaves the cacao in such a pure state that Holy Cacao received rabbinical backing to say “borei pri ha’etz,” the blessing for things that grow on trees, over their chocolate rather than the blessing over things not considered fruits or vegetables.
But finding the right trees with the specific cacao flavor they wanted wasn’t easy, especially thousands of miles from the South American source. For months Zander had been searching for a good contact until he gave a lift to a Peruvian girl in Gush Etzion and discovered that her father had direct connections to farmers in the South American cacao industry.
“There are a lot of different ways of making chocolate. We chose to go the Old World route. It sometimes creates difficulties, but we always find a way to keep our dream of producing quality chocolate in Israel alive,” says Zander.
Indeed, following their ingenuity in making a roaster out of a dryer, they renovated space at a Ma’aleh Hever warehouse and began searching for very specific chocolate-making equipment around the world. However, because people stopped using the bean-to-bar technique decades ago, with big companies opting for larger volume and faster pace, the items required sleuth-like investigation to find them.
Some, including a few nearly 100 years old, were located in the US and shipped to Israel. But the fact that they originated in America or other countries forced the Holy Cacao team to become not only expert chocolate makers but also precision technicians on the equipment they were using. Of the machinery they located in Israel, obstacles of a different nature arose.
In the case of the hammer mill, which liquefies the cacao bean, Zander found a father and son team at a metal shop in Jaffa. Although the hammer mill is used in other countries for making chocolate, the unfamiliarity in Israel of using the mechanism for chocolate forced the owners to decline selling it.
“I went back there a number of times to schmooze with them and they felt very close to me, but they were afraid the machine wouldn’t work for what we wanted. And as much as they enjoyed our company, they weren’t prepared for us to waste our money,” Zander explains.
“Finally we got them to agree, but on the condition that we test it out in their presence. We did, it worked, and the rest is history,” says Stender.
About a month and a half ago, Holy Cacao officially opened its factory. As a small to medium operation, it can produce 400 kilos of chocolate per batch. Their current flavors include Organic Hispaniola 70% Cacao; San Martin-Peru 72% Dark Chocolate; and Gianduja (pronounced zhahn-DOO-yuh) with 70% Organic Hispaniola and slow-roasted hazelnuts. Although this reporter is not an expert in chocolate tasting, there should be a warning placed on the label: “You’ll want more.”
As for the bean-to-bar method itself, the process works like this: Selected rare cacao beans are roasted, winnowed, refined with pure cane sugar and put through a process called “conching,” which Holy Cacao’s owners describe as the point “where all other chocolate factories in Israel start.” Constructed in 1879, the original conch machine looked like a giant seashell, hence the name. Depending on time and temperature, conching gives the chocolate maker freedom to enhance or diminish certain flavors. Finally, the chocolate is poured into large blocks, aged up to six months at a time. When it reaches the point where confection artists Zander and Stender believe it’s ready, it is melted down, poured into molds and packaged.
Although each step demands a high level of scrutiny, the chocolate makers themselves see it as a reflection of the life they live. For example, last summer Holy Cacao was invited to the Manhattan Chocolate Society for war games with 12 other bean-to-bar companies in the US. Holy Cacao got extremely good reviews from its competitors, but one thing the other participants couldn’t understand was why anyone would want to make chocolate so far away from the main industry and on the edge of the desert.
“We explained it to them like this,” says Zander: “As religious Jews we live life in a
constant state of refinement that every day should be better than the one before; and for us, chocolate making is an excellent parallel to this concept. When making chocolate, there are many challenges to overcome but we always intend that the next batch and all the steps in between will be even better.”