PHOTOS BY KRISTIN TEIG
Greater Boston’s latest addition to the bean-to-bar scene, Somerville Chocolate, started out as a passionate hobbyist’s experimentation. In two years, Eric Parkes has evolved from a sole producer operating a chocolate CSA out of his home kitchen to a small-batch producer in a 390-square-foot space at the Aeronaut Foods Hub (the Hub) in Somerville. Though still quite small, the expanding business means more people will be lucky enough to enjoy Parkes’ remarkable, creative, and yes, delicious chocolate.
Parkes, who grew up in Tucson and “ate all over the world,” has always loved chocolate. On a trip to Costa Rica a few years ago, he toured a cacao plantation, and says he “came back smitten.” A year of what he describes as “extreme recreational chocolate making” followed. At the time, Parkes was an architect working from his Somerville home, so he had the flexibility to devote increasing amounts of time to the activity that has surpassed architecture as his primary occupation.
Encouraged by friends and family who liked what he was producing, Parkes started the CSA in 2012 as a “light introduction to commercializing” his chocolate. He currently has about 70 members. He increased production from 300 to about 500 bars per month after moving to the Hub last June, and his business started growing to include some retail accounts. In the bigger location he shares space with new-kids-on-the-block Aeronaut Brewing Company; barismo coffee roasters; and Something GUD, which offers his chocolate along with other locally sourced foods for home delivery. Bloombrick Urban Agriculture and Tasting Counter restaurant will be opening there soon.
Somerville Chocolate CSA members receive three bars every six to 10 weeks over a 10-month period, or what Parkes calls “the chocolate season.” The selection is different each time, reflecting the many elements of chocolate making—including bean varieties and origins, roasting methods, and cacao percentage. While Parkes says the benchmark among craft producers is to roast cacao beans at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes, he likes to play around with that, warming them in his convection oven at anywhere from the mid-200s (which he sometimes refers to as baking the beans) to a high of 300 to 330 degrees. Sometimes he starts the beans with the oven high then turns it down. He even smokes beans over apple wood in his Big Green Egg ceramic cooker at home, creating unique and delicious smoked chocolate bars. (At the time of this writing, Parkes said he was planning to “dabble in other woods,” possibly to create a seasonal collection of specially wrapped bars.)
Parkes explains that different beans—the three basic types are Criollo, Trinitario, and Forastero—have their own characteristics that, to him anyway, are best suited to particular roasting treatments. Criollo beans tend to be the most delicate so should not be overcooked. Trinitario is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero. Recently, Parkes has lightly roasted Hawaiian Trinitario beans and smoked others from the Dominican Republic. Forastero, which are cultivated for mass production, are hardier and, he says, “You can nuke them more. You get a sense before you work with [them]. That’s really the magic of chocolate making.” In the current CSA season, Parkes has so far offered selections with 70 percent cacao made from beans of three different origins (countries); 70 percent cacao using beans from Nicaragua, roasted three different ways (one bar combining hot and cool roasts); and a combination of bars made with beans from Belize in 55, 70, and 85 percent cacao.
Each week he uses 40-50 pounds of beans, most of which are organic. He gets them directly from growers in Hawaii and Nicaragua; from Belize, through Somerville neighbor Taza Chocolate’s Alex Whitmore (from whom he also gets organic, fair-trade cane sugar); and from Chocolate Alchemy, an online source of products and information for home and start-up chocolate makers.
To learn the craft, Parkes relied largely on online forums like Chocolate Alchemy (whose founder, John Nanci, he calls “the grandfather of home chocolate making”) and lots of trial and error. When beans arrive, they have already been fermented and dried. The chocolate maker has to roast the beans; crack them into nibs; winnow them, or remove the husk from the nib; refine (grind and conch) the chocolate and sugar to create chocolate liquor; temper the chocolate; and mold it. Parkes built his own winnower following plans on the Chocolate Alchemy site. PVC piping and a shop-vac are involved. Parts cost him $50 at Home Depot, which he compares to the smallest commercially available machine, around $16,000 and larger than he needs right now. He uses a Santha wet grinder with two granite stone rollers to refine the chocolate. The machine, which was developed in India to make dosas, was adapted for the chocolate industry early in this century as the United States bean-to-bar movement gained momentum. Parkes has a 25-pound capacity grinder and will soon be adding a 40-pound one.
His biggest investment has been an automatic tempering machine that holds 50 pounds of chocolate. Tempering refers to the process of bringing the liquid chocolate to the temperature at which the cocoa butter is most stable, so the finished bar will have a glossy shine and good snap. Before installing the new machine, Parkes tempered all his chocolate—thousands of pounds —manually, using a modified double boiler.
After the chocolate is tempered, he pours it directly into molds. To remove the air bubbles, he places the molds on another homemade piece of equipment, a large perforated sheet pan on springs with a motor that sets the whole thing vibrating. From there, Parkes places the molds in his homemade cooler, an air conditioner hooked up to two long boxes made from aluminum-faced insulation board. “A lot of chocolate makers are tinkerers,” Parkes says matter-of-factly, pointing to the beautiful marble table he just completed that now serves as his public interface.
The bars stay in the cooler for about 30 minutes before they are ready to unmold and wrap (Parkes’ least favorite task). The beautiful papers used to cover the bars are reprinted maps from a bound street atlas of Somerville in the 1870s that Parkes, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, happens to own.
The wrappers look almost too pretty to rip open; but you’ll be very glad you did.
Somerville Chocolate somervillechocolate.com
Food writer Andrea Pyenson is a suburban empty nester finding creative ways to fill her extra time and closet space.