When craft is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
Round and round and round and round. It’s not a hypnotist’s totem we’re staring into but the eye of a melanger, a stone grinder for making chocolate.
“This is the longest step in our bean-to-bar process,” says craft chocolate maker and co-owner of Lemuel Chocolate, Ronald Ng. “We add Brazilian organic cane sugar to a pre-grinder paste of cacao nibs. Stone rollers grind the mixture for at least 48 hours until it becomes a fine, smooth liquid chocolate. After that, we block them and put them into trays for a week or two in an ageing process. Only then would we re-melt the chocolate, temper them and put them into moulds.”
Before reaching the melanger stage, Ng would have taken his cocoa beans through a host of steps, a lot of it done by hand. There is the first ‘cut-test’ to weed out mouldy beans, hand-sorting to remove impurities, a roasting process, then cracking and winnowing to separate the husks from the cacao nibs.
BOONS AND BEANS
This is all in a day’s work for Ng and his two daughters Natasha and Nathalie. At their new premises at The Star Vista (a move from Westway building, West Coast Highway), they make chocolate from scratch in their open-concept production kitchen. 12 and counting type of single origin cocoa beans spanning Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia are their raw materials. Single origin implies that the beans come from the same country, area or farm. Just as terroir determines a wine’s character, origin shapes a chocolate’s flavour.
Ng makes it a point to look out for cocoa beans with unique flavour profiles. Two of his favourites are ones from Papua New Guinea and Peru. “The Papua New Guinea beans from Kulili estate have honey and fruity notes. Some have told me they taste like dried longan. In contrast, beans from the Ucayali region, Peru, are grown near stone fruit trees on lands well-nourished by minerals in nearby rivers. The chocolate we make using them tastes of wine and dry raisins.”
Believing that “chocolate should taste like chocolate”, all the chocolate bars he makes comprise a simple two-ingredient recipe, a single origin chocolate and a Brazilian organic cane sugar. A rare exception is the deliciously creamy, nutty Philippines dark milk, which uses 60 per cent Davao chocolate and adds organic black soya milk powder to the mix.
Apart from aroma and flavours imparted by geography, the rest is up to skill. For Ng, the roasting and ageing stages are pivotal. Just as it does for coffee beans, roasting cocoa beans brings out their full flavour. Judgement and control determine how long and at what temperature to roast them.
“There are three main varieties of cocoa—forastero, criollo and trinitario (hybrid). Unique, fruity flavours are usually present in the scarcely-found criollo. These flavours could be lost if you roast them at too high temperatures. So we have to be careful with them and typically roast them at a lower temperature compared to forastero.” As for the ageing process post-melanger of sealing them and placing them on trays away from the light, this is to let the chocolate solidify and stabilise its flavours.
Production is ongoing but each batch of 20kg chocolate takes about a month to make. Despite the laboriousness of his craft, Ng never tires of it. “We may discover something new each time. Take our Thai chocolate from Chiang Mai, which won an Academy of Chocolate UK bronze award. This batch may have a certain flavour profile. When I buy in the next batch, the harvest season may be a different period. It may taste different. That’s the most amazing part of making craft chocolate.”
A LIFE IN CHOCOLATE
Ng’s love affair with chocolate is over thirty years long. After National Service, he started working for various chocolate companies and was last general manager of a chocolate marketing company prior to starting Lemuel with business partner Hideki Sakanishi. He became acquainted with the latter, a former food scientist at Meiji Tokyo, through a chocolate and sugar confectionery course in Solingen Germany back in 1990. Staying friends since then, the two visited Dandelion Chocolate factory-cafe in Tokyo more than two years ago, and left feeing inspired to set up a craft chocolate venture themselves. From experimenting with making chocolates at home, Ng progressed to starting Lemuel with Sakanishi about a year ago.
SPREADING THE WORD
With his chocolate going at $12 to $15 per bar versus $2 to $3 for typical ones, Ng says the pricing takes into account the cost price of beans per kg, which averages US$12 to US$25 per kg including airfreight. “We are willing to pay a premium for quality cacao which helps motivate the farmers to produce quality beans via upgraded process facilities at their farms.” This resonates with the global craft chocolate movement’s ethos of fair trade, uplifting the income and lives of cocoa farmers, and improving their methods in growing, fermenting and drying cacao beans.
In search of the best cacao, Ng sources widely, but looks to neighbours such as the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia first, as the beans can be air-flown to Singapore within a week or two. He has set his sights on beans from Cambodia and may be using them next. He notes that often, beans in our region, say Bali, could be very high-quality but overlooked, as the farmers themselves may not be aware of the prized produce they hold.
Ng hopes that his shop could in its own way contribute to greater awareness of high-quality cacao in the region, and elsewhere. Plans are in the works to hold daily tours at the shop and down the line, offer classes such as basic tempering and moulding, bonbon making, and bean-to-bar appreciation.
Thus far, his daughters have been a great help. Nathalie leads the production of a separate handcrafted bon bons range featuring artistic creations such as Lady Earl Grey ($3), a dark chocolate and earl grey bon bon. Natasha, on the other hand, spearheads their bakes range and handles their marketing and communications efforts.
Ng’s parting message to anyone who takes an interest in his chocolate is a simple one, “Please be gentle with the chocolate bar. Don’t munch them like potato chips. You’d miss a lot of flavours that way. Eat chocolate as if you’re tasting wine. Enjoy the flavours that come out of the chocolate. That’s what I call chocolate appreciation.”
#B1-31 The Star Vista, 1 Vista Exchange Green. Tel: 9856 2163
This story was first published in the Producer pages of Wine & Dine’s Nov/Dec 2018 issue – Luxury Redefined.