By Carol Viau
Chocolate is one good thing many people can agree upon — it’s delicious, heavenly and it makes people happy.
Case in point is the fictional Willy Wonka, who made five chocolate lovers’ fantasies come true, when he hid “golden tickets” in his chocolate bars. Those lucky enough to find the tickets were given a tour of the chocolate factory — and, better yet, a lifetime supply of chocolate.
Residents and visitors to Western North Carolina don’t need a golden ticket to get a real-life tour of the artisan chocolate maker French Broad Chocolates. The fine chocolate maker has received many accolades, including being named in USA Today Oct. 25 as one of the “10-Best” artisan chocolate makers by author Sandra Boynton.
French Broad Chocolates offers tours of its factory at 11 a.m. on Saturdays. Beat the winter blahs by learning about the making of chocolate — from farm to factory — in an instructive and tasty tour of the French Broad Chocolates Factory, at 21 Buxton Ave., on Asheville’s South Slope.
The tour is lead by Evan Ackerman, not only a chocolate maker, but also a world traveler to the source of the cacao bean. Ackerman describes why fine chocolate is so good — and more expensive than the sugary chocolate Americans have come to call chocolate.
He talks about the philosophy of French Broad Chocolates in building personal relationships with cacao partners at the source — in the tropics. The cacao bean is grown only 20 degrees north or south of the equator.
The FBC owners, Dan and Jael Rattigan, believe in nurturing relationships with the small cacao farmers to “create a deeper connection to the source.” It is a fair-trade ‘win-win’ for all involved. The Rattigans, FBC executive chocolate maker Crawford Rizor and Ackerman have been to the farms in Costa Rica and have a developed a meaningful business relationship with the farmers.
It’s a labor of love, taking many hours of hands-on labor to grow, harvest, ferment, dry, bag and export the precious cacao beans to the U.S.
The labor of love began when the Rattigans met in 2003, fell in love, left graduate school and bought an abandoned cacao farm in Costa Rica.
The good news is they settled in Asheville and began the business out of their home, selling the chocolates online and at local farmers markets. As the demand grew, French Broad Chocolate Lounge was opened in 2008, “giving the people of Asheville a haven for indulgence,” they said.
In 2012, the Rattigan’s dream of being a “bean-to-bar” chocolate maker was realized when they opened the French Broad Chocolate Factory & Tasting Room.
Ackerkman gives a fact-filled — and fun — tour of the chocolate factory. The sensory pleasure of chocolate is not lost on the tour-goers.
“Even the smell of chocolate makes you smile,” Ackerman said. “Eating chocolate triggers serotonin in the brain, and that’s what makes people happy.”
He describes the ‘journey’ of the cacao bean, starting as hard pods, shaped like small footballs, in trees in the Amazon rain forest. Nowadays, humans harvest the hard cacao pods by hand. However, before humans got involved, howler monkeys in the rain forest would get their claws into the tough pods to break into the flesh surrounding the beans.
Inside the cacao pod are the cocoa nibs, which are bitter.
“This is where all the health benefits and anti-oxidants are,” Ackerman said. “But, they have to be fermented, dried, bagged and exported.”
The tour goes into depth on the labor-intensive process of transforming the beans into fine chocolates. French Broad Chocolates’ small-batch process is unique and a lot of the processing equipment was designed and built by owner, Dan Rattigan. In fact, Rattigan was on his back on the floor working on a machine as the tour-goers went into the room where chocolate is molded into bars or enrobed into truffles by pastry chef Julie Laverdier.
Once attendees completed the tour, they understood what makes fine chocolate so good.
“When you eat a piece of chocolate, “Ackerman said, “think about how many humans worked on it.”
The Saturday tour lasts about an hour, goes through the entire process, tours the facility — and, of course, offers tasting of FBC chocolates. Tickets are $10. Reservations are recommended, since tour group size is limited. Call 828-505-4996. For those who can’t get a reservation, self-guided factory tours will resume in January.
Chocolate lovers will want to visit the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, at 10 S. Pack Square, in Asheville. The holiday collection includes luscious truffles like champagne, gingerbread, eggnog, fruitcake, peppermint and pecan pie caramel.
Is your mouth watering yet? Call 828-252-4181 or visit www.frenchbroadchocolates.com