From Bean to Bar

Words & Photography by Malu Lambert

From my vantage point in the tasting room I watch a red conch churning dark chocolate; the swirling liquid is glossy and thick. A ‘conch’ is a mixing vessel and this one is made out of a converted washing machine (as is the stone grinder next to it). They never switch the machines off and they can produce up to 20 kilograms of chocolate daily. 

The story of DV Artisan Chocolates is the stuff of fairy-tales. Pieter and Cornell De Villiers make artisan chocolate in micro-batches from single origin beans sourced in Africa and South America. Revolutionary chocolatiers, the couple haven’t comprised on the purity of their vision and only use ethically sourced beans which they roast, sort, grind, temper and mould. The end result is dark chocolate with only two ingredients: cacao and sugar. You won’t find any stabilisers, preservatives, milk solids or caramel here. This is the real deal. 

The chocolate production factory, tasting facility and shop is set in a Cape Dutch house on Spice Route Winery in Paarl. It’s a still, hot day in the Boland valley, and the view is breath-taking: farms knit together like an agricultural patchwork quilt and the Drakensberg Mountains rise up, jagged and purple.

The wine farm is in an exciting stage of development. Formerly known as Seidelberg, Charles Back (owner of Fairview) bought the farm. And the Spice Route range, wines made from Swartland bush vines, has a place to call its own.

Not only have the chocolate makers moved in, but so have the Cape Brewing Company as well as Wilderer Grappa Distillery and Restaurant. The farm has become a settlement for artisan masters in their fields. You could spend an entire day here moving from one thing to the next.

But first, we eat chocolate. Inside you walk immediately into the tasting room, where Pieter and Cornel lead groups through tastings much as you would at a wine counter. A point made by Cornell: “Each bean has its own character and flavour profile, just like any grape cultivar.” 

This area looks into a working factory space through a glass wall (where the red conch is so diligently churning). A world map covers the far wall, denoting the cacao’s places of origin.

This won’t be my first taste of their product. A few years ago I met Pieter and Cornell in Hermanus where they were selling their wares at a market. Soon afterwards I visited them at home, the centre of which was a chocolate factory. Fast forward a couple of years and the pair, along with their three sons, have moved their lives and business to the winelands.

“All our equipment is the same,” says Pieter while leading me through the new factory space. “There’s still nothing modern.” He has a background in IT, and for the formative part of his career he set factories in motion by designing machines and programmes. He has applied this knowledge to the chocolate factory and has created the necessary equipment from household appliances. Though he’s quick to point out that the processes aren’t fully automated as ‘making chocolate relies on taste’.

“Things have just happened,” he says. “Our output has doubled and will double again in the next six months. Though even at that rate, we’re still incredibly small, especially in comparison to commercial chocolate manufacturers.”

What’s changed? “Our relationships with the cacao bean farmers have improved. At first they didn’t want to deal with us as the quantity of beans we needed was so small, which made getting the product enormously difficult. Now we send them chocolate made with their beans, and it seems to have worked!”

While Pieter’s clever machines do the majority of the work, there’s a definite human element. This is perfectly illustrated by a factory worker who is busy hand-sorting a pile of chocolate nibs from papery husks. “It’s called winnowing,” Pieter informs me. “I have a machine that does most of it. It separates the heavier nib from the light husk by weight, but sometimes they’re equal, so then we have to sort it bit-by-bit.

“We’re also making our own cocoa butter now,” he says showing me the press. A by-product of this is cocoa powder, which they have plans to turn into another product. “You can’t find natural cocoa powder anywhere in South Africa. It’s not as dark as the synthetic stuff, so it’s no good for baking, but it’s perfect for drinking chocolate.”

They’re also roasting their own coffee beans. The idea is to be able to offer single origin coffee with single origin chocolate. There are plans to turn the outside courtyard into a coffee shop, stocked, of course, with chocolate confectionaries.

“We currently have six chocolate origins,” says Pieter (the coffee is Ugandan). “Each one has a different roasting profile. The roasting brings out the flavours inherent in the bean as well as levelling acidity. Flavour development is then a result of speed, pressure and temperature.” (Call in the washing machines!)

Trinitario and Forastero—which are types of trees—beans are sourced from Madagascar, Venezuela (both Rio Caribe and Caracas), Sao Tome, Uganda and Trinidad. The De Villiers painstakingly tasted and tested hundreds of different beans to arrive at their chosen six.

What’s also new is the Café Collection, which is perhaps the company’s most commercial offering. “I was hesitant because chocolate by itself is special enough without having to add anything else,” admits Pieter. The range already stands out from the rest with its colourful art nouveau packaging. The flavours include espresso (made with both Ugandan coffee and cacao), rooibos, caffé latte, dark milk, and dark nib (smooth textured chocolate punctuated with cacao nibs). There are talks of making a salted chocolate too, with fleur de sel from Velddrif on the West Coast.

The language of flavour

It’s time to do a tasting. Pieter leaves us in the capable hands of Cornell. First up we do a comparison of roasted and unroasted beans. An exercise meant to illustrate the differences in flavour. 

There are three types of cacao trees, Criollo, Trinitario and Forastero. DV Artisan deals in the latter two. The Trinitario has a ‘fine flavour’, in comparison the Forastero is a ‘bulk bean’, and as well as being bigger in flavour it’s also more readily available.

“It’s like the difference between Arabica and Robusta coffee beans,” explains Cornel.

Set out in front of us is a block each of the six origins complete with tasting notes. The tasting is meant to be done comparatively by taking a small bite of each and then going back to compare. 

Cornell says for the average person doing a chocolate tasting seems a bit esoteric at first, “but by doing it and comparing the different flavours, before they know it they’re talking the language of flavour.”

Just like in wine, chocolate also has a flavour wheel. Categories such as, roasted, earthy, floral, and fruity are broken down into specific taste points; say notes of jasmine, plums and even grass.

How can we really taste grass in chocolate? “Flavour compounds are molecules that knit together and give you the flavours you associate them with,” says Cornel matter-of-fact.

The tasting process can be broken down in five parts. First is sight; a badly tempered chocolate will have white grainy blooms on its surface. There’s beauty in the colour too—far from being a standard brown, dark chocolate can glimmer with reds and purples. Next is hearing, we hold up the slab to our ears and break it with a clear ‘snap’. This sound is thanks to the pure cocoa butter (imitation chocolate will crumble in comparison). Chocolate melts at body temperature, this is also the stage where it releases the flavours, so the following step is: touch; we rub the chocolate between our fingers. Not only does it feel smooth, but it also releases its scent—which happens to be the next stage: smell. “Flavour is the combined sensation of aroma and taste”.

Cornell says that mass produced chocolate is easily identified by the smell of vanilla and caramel, while artisan dark chocolate can boast aromas such as wood, spice and fruit.

Finally we get to the last component: taste. Here we allow the chocolate to coat our entire mouths, and as you would with a spirit or wine tasting, we breathe in the opposite direction, a method that’s known as ‘reverse olfaction’.

Soon we’re also talking the language of flavour, and it’s easy considering: ‘cacao contains more than 600 flavours, making it quite literally the most flavourful food on the planet’.

DV Artisan Chocolate

Chocolate tastings happen daily between 9am and 5pm, call to find out about tutored wine and chocolate tastings as well as chocolate appreciation workshops.

Spice Route Winery, Suid-Agter Paarl Road, Paarl, +27 (0)21 863 0854