Of the professions that architects choose when they stop being architects, chocolatier is not very common. After all, how does someone concerned with the technicalities of building make the leap towards tempering, dipping, decorating, moulding, and selling chocolate?
In Trinidad and Tobago, there’s only one person to ask.
Architect turned chocolate maker and chocolatier Isabel Brash is unique, not only in her switch of professions, but in her holistic approach to her company. She does everything meticulously by hand—from the design of her logo and packaging to the creation of her chocolates. Trading under the epithet Cocobel—her company that has been in operation for roughly two years—Brash turns out delightfully delicious bars, barks, and artisanal filled chocolate pieces, called bonbons. She refines the chocolate at home, using her own formula derived from extensive research and much trial and error (according to her friends and family, chocolate isn’t the only thing that has melted down in her kitchen).
In Trinidad and Tobago, this move beyond the bean is rare—much of the country’s cocoa harvest is exported after the beans are dried or roasted. If she doesn’t stand completely alone, Brash is one of a very few number of people with the knowledge and skill set needed to perform the complicated steps that transform beans into the exquisite chocolates that define the Cocobel product line.
Of this line, Brash said, “I keep adding more items as I grow in experimenting with new flavours. The best bonbons are made using fresh ingredients, so I make my own nut butters and fruit purées to use in the recipes.” Flavours in the Cocobel line have included mango pepper, rich dark sorrel, fresh mint, espresso, ginger rum, ponche de crème, honey passion fruit, guava, dark pineapple, coconut truffle, cashew with coconut toffee, and roughly a dozen others.
Also crucial to the production of an excellent bonbon are the beans themselves. Brash uses organic Trinitario cacao beans that have been harvested, fermented and dried at her family’s Rancho Quemado Estate in the deep south of Trinidad.
In order to understand the bean to bonbon process, I spent an evening in Brash’s kitchen. The intensely heady aroma of chocolate filled the space, as did the quiet yet constant whirr of a machine tucked away in the corner. “This is the smaller one,” Brash explained. “It refines about 18 pounds, the larger one does about 40.” She gestured towards another machine that sat silent. The batch undergoing refinement would take about 60 hours, during which Brash would monitor the consistency of the blend to ensure it was perfect.
As she continued the tour, Brash talked all things chocolate, including why Trinidadians seem to favour milk chocolate over dark chocolate (she makes the latter). “I think it’s because milk chocolate is the taste they grew up with; dark chocolate is perceived as bitter,” she said. “But our local beans are of a really good quality. They have very fruity notes. I think that that fruitiness gives it a bit of extra natural sweetness.”
I decided to test this theory myself. Brash had recently made several flavours of bonbons and suggested I try the mango pepper. It looked (almost) too good to eat. I took a bite. Richly smooth, delectable chocolate gave way to the slightly salty, sweet taste of mango and, at last, the heat of the pepper provided a kick.
As she offered another sample, Brash explained: “I studied architecture but what I love about it I did not get from it as a professional architect. When I was in England doing my master’s, one of my professors said, ‘I hope none of you become professional architects at the end of this— it’s a waste of skills. You should take this last year in school to obsess about everything. Practising architecture will kill every bit of creativity you have.’ ”
After receiving her degree, Brash returned to Trinidad in 2005 and worked as an architect for three years. It was a well-rounded experience, but she’d started obsessing about chocolate. She knew her brother had cocoa on an estate they’d acquired, so she asked him to bring home some beans and she ordered books on chocolate production. “I wanted to try something for fun,” she recalled. “I roasted the beans in the oven and had a series of research sessions where I experimented with how different roasting affected the taste. Every step affects the final outcome or flavour of the chocolate.”
Brash launched into a history of cocoa in Trinidad and Tobago. Effortlessly, she covered location and climate and the Spanish who first brought cocoa here, pests and the sensitivity of the crop, different varieties of beans and natural hybrids. “Perhaps it’s the oil in the soil that makes our beans so good,” she said, letting loose one of the evening’s many guffaws. Moments later, her voice softened again as she spoke of Rancho Quemado at harvest time.
At the estate, the inside of the pod is removed and the beans are dried in the sun and then roasted, cracked, and winnowed (the husks removed). “Nibs” are left and these are broken into pieces and ground to a liquid state, “not smooth and refined, rather, something like very rough sand’’. This substance is known as cocoa liquor, and Brash showed buckets of it, which she receives from the estate. “Every harvest is a little different,” she noted.
The liquor is then placed in the machine to be refined—the continuous frictional heat breaks the mix down into a smooth substance. If necessary, Brash will add cocoa butter along the way—how much or how little depends on whether she is making chocolate for bars or couverture (chocolate for bonbons). But “the bean is already about 50 per cent cocoa butter,’’ she explained.
Once smooth, the chocolate is removed from the machine and tempered. This is a delicate process that includes agitating and cooling the chocolate uniformly to a very precise temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This crystallises the cocoa butter to proper working form and gives chocolate its characteristically smooth and tight surface.
During her first experimentations with tempering and moulding, Brash realised she would need to seek help. In September 2008, she signed up for a three-month long Canadian-based online workshop. “It opened up a whole new world for me,” she recalled. “It was more like a professional course for people who wanted to go into business as chocolatiers, but one of the final things they taught was moulding techniques. It was something I really needed to do.’’ But at the end of it, “I still couldn’t temper the damn chocolate,” she said, laughing.
Much practice later, Brash is a pro at tempering—a process that can be done by machine, but she opts to do it by hand. She offered a demonstration, chatting away as she used flat blades to work the chocolate on a cool marble slab, her hands on autopilot. “When I’m doing this stuff, it’s like magic,” she said. “It’s unbelievable—it breaks down and then starts coming together and it’s perfect again.” Once the chocolate is tempered, Brash pours it into moulds to make bonbons or bark. With bark, she sprinkles ingredients such as candied ginger or fruit and nuts onto the chocolate; with the bonbons she fills the mould with purees (which, of course, she also makes by hand) and then encases them in tempered chocolate and decorates with coloured cocoa butter or various designs.
When asked what she likes most about what she does, Brash replied, “The thing with chocolate is that I have total control of the process. Not only in the making of the chocolate, but in designing my own packaging. I print and cut out everything myself. I’ve gotten from this what I didn’t get from architecture . . . if people don’t appreciate my design, at least they might appreciate the taste.”
And it seems that they have. Once Brash perfected her art form she shared her chocolates with friends and family and, from there, in addition to an increased demand for her line, she started getting commissions for weddings and other special events. “I still think like an architect,” she said, laughing. “For any commissioned piece, I do sketches and try to make the chocolates unique to the client and I present them with options.” One of her most high-profile commissions was the creation of gift boxes for Summit of the Americas delegates. And the dailies ran an article on Hillary Clinton receiving Cocobel chocolates.
In spite of—or perhaps because of—her rising star in the chocolatier world and a seemingly endless quest for more information on her craft, early last year Brash attended workshops in France at master chocolatier Michel Cluizel’s chocolate factory, and then with Christophe Canet at Cacoa Barry chocolate academy. In October, by invitation, she attended the Terra Madre Slowfood event in Torino, Italy, which focused on sustainable food production including quality food, economic fairness and organic practices.
Brash’s longterm plan includes a small factory on her family’s estate which will produce plain dark chocolate using beans from Rancho Quemado and other single estates. She has also started to renovate a space in Woodbrook for the creation of a chocolate café, out of which she will work. “It would be a place for conversation and learning,” she said. Until that time, Brash will continue to work from home, turning out treat after treat for fortunate local palates. “It’s a labour of love,” she said, quietly. I suspect that is her secret ingredient. M
Writer: Melanie Archer
Photographers: Giselle De Roché, Isabel Brash