by Charles McGuigan
I’ve always been amazed how human beings can take something that grows—something not at all edible in its natural state—and refine it and by so doing create a culinary delight.
Consider the olive, a naturally bitter fruit that is fermented or cured with lye or brine and magically transformed it into a palatable morsel. Someone figured that out about 6,000 years ago, probably in Syria.
The same is true with chocolate, which originated about 4,000 years ago in the Amazon basin among an extinct tribe called the Mokaya. Somehow one of these people figured out how to turn cacao beans extracted from a pod into something that would one day be eaten by virtually everyone who inhabits this world. A man or a woman in that distant time learned to make chocolate out of cacao beans by fermenting them, roasting them and grinding them.
Cathy Churcher knows chocolate, is frequently wrist deep in it as she spreads it, thick and dark, on a cookie sheet where it will cure once she’s peppered it liberally with any number of fresh, organic ingredients. And then it will be broken into jagged chunks of bark that will be bagged and sold at fine shops throughout the Richmond area—Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Ellwood Thompson’s, For the Love of Chocolate, Urban Farmhouse and Café, and Emerson’s Wine and Cheese, to name a few. Of course her handiwork is also available daily at her storefront, Chocolate Cravings, in the Hub Shopping Center on Lakeside Avenue. A vendor at Lakeside Farmers’ Market just across the street also carries Cathy’s creations and she’s permanent fixture on weekends at the Williamsburg Farmers’ Market.
Right now, she’s carefully cutting a handful of crystallized ginger into fine slivers with a small knife. “When I’m finished with the cutting, the ginger will join cardamom in the chocolate,” says Cathy. “I was in England a few years and a chocolatier was doing a ginger bar and a cardamom bar and I thought the two flavors would go well together. Cardamon has a little heat to it and it works well with the dark chocolate and ginger.”
Cathy Churcher received her professional chocolatier certificate from Ecole Chocolat. “I’ve also done the bean to bar,” she tells me. “I learned how to make chocolate from the actual bean. It’s quite a process. A few years back she traveled to Costa Rica to visit cacao plantations, where she learned volumes from the people who grow these remarkable trees.
“Cacao will only grow from between twenty degrees north and south of the equator,” Cathy says. “It started in South America and migrated up through Central America into Mexico and around the world.”
Today about 70 percent of all cacao beans come from West Africa, but Cathy uses only Columbian chocolate from a farm that practices fair trade.
Almost every cacao farm in the world—85 to 90 percent of them—are less than ten acres large. And growing these trees, which can live for about 70 years, and harvesting their precious pods is labor intensive. “There are generally two harvests a year and pod starts with a little flower that looks like an orchid.” Cathy says. “It has to be hand harvested, one at a time because they don’t ripen at the same time.”
Each pod contains between 25 and 35 beans and it takes more than 300 beans to make a single pound of chocolate. Cathy holds up a block of dark chocolate the size a small laptop that weighs about five and a half pounds. “In November and December I went through 600 pounds of chocolate,” she says.
Virtually all chocolate is grown organically. “The farmers who grow it don’t have the money to buy insecticides and pesticides,” says Cathy.
When it comes to chocolate, Cathy is like a chef. She creates her own recipes, using only natural and fresh ingredients, combining flavors that complement one another. “I do orange peels and cayenne bark, almond and sea salt, pistachio and cranberry,” she says, naming but a few of her trademark chocolate barks. “I love using herbs, lavender, mint, fresh grated nutmeg, coriander and cinnamon. I do one with rose, fig and pistachios. It has a very floral taste.”
She also does these wonderful little frogs made of white and dark chocolate, each one hand-painted with green and yellow stripes so they look like amphibians from an Amazon rain forest. “I do them for Love of Chocolate and they can’t keep them in stock,” Cathy says.
Though barks have become her specialty, Cathy creates many other chocolate products. “I do truffles, I do my chocolate bars, I do Guinness-soaked brownies, I do European pralines, pretzels dipped in chocolate,” she says, and then lists more.
In the future Cathy hopes for more commercial accounts and increased walk-in traffic. She loves meeting the people who buy her goods. And she always wants to keep the cost of her products reasonable.
“I feel chocolate should be accessible to everyone,” says Cathy Churcher. “My chocolate is an affordable luxury. I can provide quality ingredients and quality chocolate at an affordable price.”
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