Chocolate begins with the Theobroma cacao tree, which literally means "food of the Gods." It's a tropical plant that only grows within 20 degrees of the equator. Cacao trees grow best in filtered sunlight, often under the cover of banana and tall hardwood trees.
The cacao tree produces pods from top to bottom all year long, so there will be pods of all stages of ripeness on the tree. There are two main harvests each year. Harvesting is done by hand, often with a long pole that has a blade on its end.
The pods are split open to harvest the cacao beans inside. The beans are surrounded by a white, fruity pulp. The beans are pulled away from the central stem and any inferior beans discarded. On larger plantations, this may be done by machine.
The wet beans are piled into wooden fermentation boxes for several days. The sugary pulp breaks down and ferments the beans, mellowing out their bitterness and imbuing them with the pulp's sweetness. This step is critical. Poor fermentation can ruin many beans.
After fermentation, the beans are spread out in a single layer to dry completely. Sometimes this is done mechanically with warmed air from below or naturally, on wide platforms that allow the beans to bake in the tropical sun.
When the beans are completely dried, they are packed up and sent to chocolate manufacturers for final processing. Gail prefers to use manufacturers either in the country of the beans' origin or in the United States, rather than Europe, which helps minimize the number of times the chocolate is shipped across the globe.
The beans are roasted to bring out their full flavor and color. The time and temperature of the roasting is carefully calibrated depending upon the type of bean and its moisture content.
After roasting, the beans go through a winnower that removes the shells and leaves the cacao nibs -- the crushed cacao bean that's packed with cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
The nibs are ground into a thick, liquid-like paste called chocolate liquor. While it sounds like something you could order at a martini bar, it has no alcohol in it. It's merely a name for liquid chocolate.
This is when sugar is added to make various formulas of chocolate. The less sugar that's added, the higher the cocoa percentage. Good quality dark chocolate has a cocoa percentage that typically ranges between 50 to 85%. Sometimes additional cocoa butter and vanilla are added into the ground chocolate liquor and then the mixture is blended in various types of machines, one being a melangeur. A melangeur is rarely found in modern manufacturing facilities, but some small artisans - if they are lucky enough to find them - will use them to mix the ingredients into a smooth liquid.
Next the mixture is refined. The sole purpose of this step is to reduce particle size of the ingredients in order to produce a smooth, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth feeling. This is accomplished in successive steps by passing the chocolate through a multi-roll refiner, which reduces the particle size by both crushing and shearing.
Finally, the chocolate is conched. This important step serves a number of purposes: it removes moisture content, reduces volatile acids and flavors, and smoothes out the chocolate. Depending on the type of equipment this step can take several hours or several days.
The conched chocolate is tempered to create smooth, shiny bars or medallions that are shipped to consumers and chocolatiers.
Once the chocolate reaches the shop, Gail and her staff perform daily tastings so they know the taste variations of each batch and adjust their recipes accordingly. This also provides inspiration for new flavors.
Gail and her staff then use a variety of single-origin chocolates, combined with fresh ingredients to create the ganaches that form the flavorful interiors of the truffles. All of Gail's chocolates are made by hand in small batches in her shop on Atwood Avenue in Madison, Wisconsin.
The fine Colombian chocolate that's used to envelop the truffles, fruits and nuts, and form the shapes and bars is carefully tempered in this machine. It takes constant attention to keep the chocolate at its optimal temperature for delicious glossiness and snap.
At last, the fresh chocolates are placed in the display case. Gail and her staff help customers discover that perfect assortment for a treat or special gift.