They’ve got the golden ticket

An open and shut case: Jael and Dan Rattigan survey a case filled with handmade truffles that include everything from fresh chilies to local sorghum molasses caramel. Photos by Bill Rhodes

Dan Rattigan gently places a chocolate bar on the table, followed by a handful of beans. The bar is wrapped in shiny, food-grade foil, and it glints like the prized golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In this case, the prize is the chocolate, and this is no standard bar. For one, it was manufactured at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, the combination chocolate-making business and café that Rattigan owns with his wife, Jael in downtown Asheville. Also, this bar was made from scratch by a method that only a few chocolatiers use. The Rattigans started with whole cacao beans, roasted them, then cracked their husks open to reveal seeds that, when fractured, are known as chocolate nibs, an edible byproduct sometimes used as a dessert garnish or chocolate bar additive.

In bean-to-bar chocolate making, as this labor-intensive process is known, the nibs are further ground into paste, which industry standard dictates should be refined until smooth. Chocolate artisans may decide to allow the consistency to remain grainy if the cacao expresses itself better that way. The paste is then mixed with whichever ingredients are to be added (sugar, for example) and pressed into shape.

The chocolate on the table is part of a batch of thin but perfect bars, with each tiny rectangular portion etched precisely with the French Broad Chocolate logo and a tiny cacao pod.

The Pure Nacional beans from which this chocolate bar is made look mottled and much less edible in their unrefined state. These are some of the rarest and most treasured cacao beans on the planet, says Dan. "We're one of the first chocolate makers in the United States to have the opportunity to play with these cacao beans and make them, bean-to-bar, into chocolate," he says, before snapping off a piece of the finished product and passing it across the table.

An American named Dan Pearson and his stepson discovered the cacao plants that eventually became this chocolate in a river canyon in northern Peru. The men, no chocolatiers, were working to supply local mining companies with food and gear and had no idea what the strange plants with their football-shaped pods were. But locals identified the cacao as something special, and Pearson sent samples to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was determined that the plants were of a treasured variety, previously thought to have gone extinct after a disease systematically destroyed all known cultivated varieties in the 1600s. The plants were, in short, a once-in-a-lifetime find.

"And it also happens to be of superior quality. Of course, a lot of that has to do with post-harvest practices," Dan says, letting the finished product melt on his tongue. It's incredibly rich and smooth in texture because of its high cocoa-butter content, with a deep, dark flavor and very little bitterness. The chance to taste such high-quality chocolate like this is rare, and the beans tell a story well beyond the bar.

"We try to take great pride in the products we produce and we want to know the story behind them and we want to share that story," says Dan. "We want to be the resident experts on this product," he says. And the world of cacao, with all of its history and mystique, is about to become a bit more accessible in WNC.

Solar chocolate

To widen the scope of what they can do with chocolate (and widen their market, too) the Rattigans are constructing a full-fledged bean-to-bar chocolate factory on Buxton Avenue, on the edge of downtown Asheville. Though the factory will be decidedly short on Oompa Loompas, it will boast its own share of magic. The 4,000-square-foot facility will include a 200-square-foot rooftop bean-production deck, the centerpiece of which will be a solar roaster, a complex machine that Dan (who seems to be something of a rather composed mad scientist of chocolate) is building in the couple’s basement. "What I'm building is a parabolic-trough solar-concentrating roaster," says Dan in his own manner of explaining things.

The prototype model he’s working on, he says, will follow the sun’s movement from the roof, which gets full southern exposure. Backup convection roasters will wait on standby for cloudy days. "But this will make us really unique," says Jael. Grant money will help them install solar hot-water heaters and other technology to offset the factory’s energy use.

"We're creating a new business that has the potential for great energy consumption, so we want to be responsible with how we design it from the get-go," Dan says. "We plan to be here for a long time to come and we're trying to invest in our future, and we want to push the envelope with sustainability."

A far away taste

The Rattigans have refined whole cacao beans into chocolate for a little more than a year now, though they were making chocolate truffles and desserts long before that. In 2004, they opened Bread and Chocolate, a tiny café and bakery on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica surrounded by palms, and equipped with a small apartment where Jael gave birth to the first of the couple's two sons. 

In 2008, after opening the Chocolate Lounge, they began incorporating whole beans into their sipping chocolates, unique drinks with historic roots like the spiced bitter-chocolate xocolatl, an Aztec word meaning "bitter water."

The first bar of pure Ecuadorian chocolate was placed for sale on the Chocolate Lounge's shelves back in June, "without any fanfare," says Dan. "They came and went rather quickly."

This spring, when the factory opens, the couple will start the process of producing chocolate, which they’ll sell here and across the country in the form of chocolate bars and slabs. The single-origin bars the Rattigans make articulate a sense of place, a distinct terroir, something people are more likely to mull over with good wine.

Even though artisan chocolate is having its moment in the sun, people don’t often chew over the details of its flavor notes and origin, although that sort of deep attention and appreciation is on the rise. "It seems like chocolate is going through a revolution, kind of like coffee, beer and cheese have before it, where artisan processing and sourcing are becoming more valued," Jael agrees.

Being the bean

But how to articulate the story of the bean? The conversation often starts when people ask about the price tags on the artisan chocolate bars, higher than your average Hershey’s.

"To tell the story is not something we've fully figured out, but we can be passionate about our sourcing because we're getting to know it on an intimate level," says Dan. When the Rattigans embark on cacao-sourcing missions, they practically become the bean, as when they visited Peru this summer, where cacao is replacing coca leaves as the cash crop.

"It was really poignant to be driving down this winding mountain pass in the back of a pathetic excuse for a taxi, going way too fast, nearly going over the cliff many times and thinking, 'Oh my god, this is the route that our cacao would be taking if we were to buy cacao down at the bottom of this canyon, in the rainforest areas where it's grown,’" says Dan.

He's every bit the picture of romantic, wayfaring chocolatier, thinking of his beans instead of the very real possibility of ending up in a twisted wreck in the bottom of a canyon, his life in the hands of a coca-leaf chewing cab driver.

"This is the route that truck would drive," Dan marvels. "Over this winding pass, over the Andes, down the other side, and all the way out to the coast to get on a ship and go all the way past Ecuador, through the Panama Canal, into the Caribbean and then up and around to probably a port in New York, and then back in a truck down to us — it's such an intense, amazing journey. It passes through so many hands. There's a story to be told there. Just to call it 'Peruvian chocolate' does not do it justice."

"The bars that we are making are $5, $6, $12 sometimes, and this is why," says Jael. "Because we're going there and sourcing meticulously. A lot of times, to explain the price is where this conversation starts."

Building a better bar

The Rattigan's attention to detail is as notable as their chocolate, which is one reason for their success. The couple painstakingly measured, tested and sampled until they found the perfect thickness and ideal weight for the bars that they're making, as well as the right depth and perfect angle of the "snapping channels," the grooves where the squares of chocolate are broken off. This seemingly inconsequential detail ensures that each chocolate piece can be snapped off the bar in clean fashion, with no jagged edges. "When you break the bar, you end up with the perfect rectangle, the perfect sample size that fits in your mouth nicely," says Dan.

But why put all of this effort into perfection? Why build a chocolate factory when the French Broad Chocolate Lounge was so immediately popular that the fire marshals were routinely irked by the size of the crowds, necessitating expansion into two upper floors to increase seating capacity? Even after the massive building project is over, the factory, with its detail-oriented production, won’t make life any easier. Many chocolatiers simply order paste to make chocolate, and technically inferior products like Hershey’s remain top sellers.

"That's not our M.O.," says Jael. "We do things the hard way. If we were to sum it up in one word, our main motivation is 'integrity.'"

Integrity is what makes the couple meticulously source everything as locally as possible. "Any herbs or fruit that we can source from local farmers, we're buying it," Jael says. "We've searched long and wide for our dairy, which is organic and grass-fed." The sorghum molasses in the caramels, for example, comes from Marshall, where it's cut from cane and pressed using old-fashioned horsepower. "We feel really good about more and more of our ingredients. Chocolate was an exception," she says.

"It was the enormous elephant in the room," adds Dan. "We did source as carefully as we could, buying chocolate as an ingredient, but we felt like the step that was missing was for us to take control of that process and source the cacao and do it ourselves.

Building a bean-to-bar chocolate factory is a leap of faith, but one one of practicality, too. "It's hard to say where faith comes from," says Dan. "It is faith, but it's also pencil and paper and a calculator."

The factory’s success is possible as long as the French Broad Chocolate Lounge remains busy. The Rattigans already have a wholesale client for quality bean-to-bar chocolate in themselves, in the cakes, truffles and other desserts the lounge sells. "We know that we can use 10,000 pounds of chocolate a year without ever selling a single bar, wholesale or retail," says Jael.

But first on the agenda, she says, is to create the line of chocolate bars and establish wholesale relationships and eventually begin shipping across the country to boutique chocolate shops. And the Asheville stamp is increasingly becoming a stamp of quality, Jael says. "Asheville is definitely getting a reputation for being an artisan-food capital, so when we send our bars out across the nation, that's going to be part of the messaging — it's made here in Asheville. That's part of its identity," Jael says.

Besides being a source for quality chocolate, the factory will also serve as a classroom where the story of cacao can be told, a place where the French Broad Chocolate Lounge (for all of its charms) leaves off, says Dan. "We can dedicate space in our tasting area to document, through photos and words, the process that goes into making chocolate. We want to develop it as something that can help tell that story and you can leave with a broader scope of knowledge about how chocolate's made."

The French Broad Chocolate factory will open on Buxton Avenue in late spring. For more information about French Broad Chocolates, visit http://frenchbroadchocolates.com.

— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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