By Deneb R. Batucan
CHOCOLATES wouldn’t exist without the cacao bean. Imagine a world without this rich and sweet taste that excites our palates. It wouldn’t be right at all.
Raquel Choa, the Philippines’ chocolate queen, has spearheaded an educational and chocolate-filled activity with Ralfe Gourmet’s The Chocolate Journey, where guests could learn what entails in the traditional tablea-making process and how Raquel’s elevated tablea recipes have helped her make her mark in the chocolate history.
The Chocolate Journey takes place at Raquel’s home, which she dubbed as Casa de Cacao. For Raquel, this house is her own version of the sprawling palace of Maria Cacao — the main character of the stories her grandmother used to tell her when she was a little girl — which was, as legend says, situated in the mountains. “Mi casa, su casa. My home is your home too,” a line which Raquel often says to her guests as a welcome.
The Chocolate Journey starts with the Cacao Bean Evolution, where the cacao bean to tablea process is taught in depth. According to Edu Patino, Ralf Gourmet’s marketing manager, the cacao tree grows tiny flowers that become big fruit pods. These pods carry the cacao fruit and would have about 30 to 40 beans inside, depending on the cacao plant breed.
These beans are cleaned, removed of all extraneous material and fermented and solar dried before they are roasted. There is an exact temperature, time and moisture that should be followed when roasting for the rich flavors to surface.
After that is the winnowing of the beans to remove the shells. During The Chocolate Journey, the traditional winnowing bamboo basket was used to show how the process works. The shells of the roasted beans are removed, leaving fresh cacao nibs.
Onto the Trails and Tales of Maria Cacao, where Raquel talks of her bittersweet life story as a girl who lived in the mountains whose cacao journey started as a need to sustain hunger.
“As a little girl, I couldn’t leave my house without drinking the ‘bitter water,’ which is what I tell people when I’m asked what the taste of sikwate is. My nanay (grandmother) told me that I need to drink it to survive. When I was a child in the mountains, we could only eat rice once a year. It would be lucky for us if we have corn. But it was sikwate that sustained our hunger,” she mused.
Raquel also recalls the Legend of Maria Cacao, which has inspired her very own chocolate journey. She reads the legend in great detail and much finesse that one would get drawn into a time warp where the ethereal Maria Cacao sailed on her golden ship that was filled with cacao fruit.
After the storytelling is a live tablea making where Raquel herself, aided by her children and staff, finely grounds the fresh cacao nibs and molds them into tablea. She uses the newly formed chocolate rounds to make the famous sikwate using a traditional wooden beater called batirol.
Raquel concocts several sikwate flavors, each one a joy at every sip. She made spicy sikwate where she strains a mixture of ground chili and atsuete into a jug of steaming hot sikwate. Other varieties were hibiscus, jasmine and mint sikwate.
“When you try our chocolate, especially the ones that are freshly grounded, it’s a burst of flavors. It’s nutty, bitter, it’s earthy. There are so many flavors. It’s just now that we learned to appreciate it,” Edu shared. “Before, our tablea only had one flavor: bitter. We need to educate people that there are more flavors in the cacao than what we are used to.”
With sikwate on hand, one cannot refuse to pair the hot drink with rich tablea cakes and pastries at the Tsokolate Bar at Casa de Cacao. Raquel has made tablea cakes without eggs, water or milk, and they are so dense and delightful at every bite. Her torta de cerveza is made with Cerveza Negra and tablea, while her torta de Francisco, which was made in anticipation of Pope Francis’ visit, is made of Argentinian olive oil and wine.
Raquel’s children also have their own tablea pastries, like the choco ryza (chocolate crispies), cookies and brownies. These were as decadent as their mother’s cakes.
The farm-to-table concept of The Chocolate Journey is an interesting take on the slow food process where making food in a sustainable and healthier way results to mouthwatering food inventions, much like Raquel’s delicious tablea concepts. It’s enriching to both the brain and the palate and gives a much deserved respect to the traditions and history of the humble tablea.