I’m not Willy Wonka, but I did visit the chocolate factory in Boquete. It’s called The Perfect Pair, and they make and sell delicious chocolates, as well as offering specialty coffees to enjoy with your chocolates.
Our group took a chocolate-making class, where we learned the origin of the chocolate and the multi-step process that takes it from the cacao pods to the finished product. Cacao is not grown in Boquete – it comes from Bocas del Toro, to our north on the Caribbean coast of Panama. They buy the cocoa beans from there, then roast and process them in-house to make the various varieties of chocolate they sell. They don’t yet have the machine required to extract cocoa butter, but they will be acquiring one in the future. For now, they purchase the cocoa butter that goes into their chocolates from another Panamanian company.
After the cacao is roasted and ground into nibs, it is further processed by machine into a finely ground mass. This is then combined with cocoa butter and sugar (and milk for the milk chocolate) in another machine.
After the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, they go to the tempering machine. This machine brings the chocolate to the correct temperature and constantly recirculates it through the machine to ensure that the temperature is consistent throughout the batch.
After the tempering process, the chocolate is ready to be poured into molds to make the finished product.
After the tour, we got to make our own chocolates. We started by using some fine sugar of various (non-toxic) colors to “paint” the stained-glass patterns of our molds. Then the real fun began!
The actual chocolate making started with a pan of the chocolate that had come from the tempering vat, which we had to cool to the proper temperature for making the chocolate bars. To accomplish that, we worked in pairs – one person poured about half of the chocolate out onto a cool granite table and stirred it around, while the other person used a digital thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature.
After the cooled chocolate was returned to the pan, it was thoroughly mixed together. With some final stirring and double-checking of the temperature, it was ready to be poured into the molds. The excess chocolate was scraped off, and the molds were tapped on the table to release any small bubbles. Then we sprinkled different ingredients on the warm chocolate bars to customize them with nuts, coconut, cookies, raisins, or sea salt.
After cooling the bars in the refrigerator for 10 minutes, they were ready to be unmolded by twisting the plastic molds slightly to loosen them, then flipping the mold over to reveal the finished product.
This class was so much fun! Much like on our recent tour of the coffee farm, I learned a lot and gained a new appreciation of all the steps involved in making chocolates. Both processes are very labor-intensive, and takes a lot of time to go from the raw product to the finished chocolate bar or cup of coffee.
This is just one more reason for me to love living in Boquete!