The commute to a high school job had me driving by Mansfield's century-old ADM Cocoa factory several times a week for a few years awhile back. What a heavenly smell, right? Wrong. I quickly came to believe that the production of chocolate is pretty foul smelling. Imagine my surprise, then, when I arrived at Somerville's own Taza Chocolate factory recently, and the aroma was simply amazing. Not bitter and burnt like ADM or cloyingly sweet like at the Hershey theme park in Pennsylvania - no, this was something on another level: subtle floral notes, hints of spices, appetizing odors all around.
Rumor has it that the Taza owners are sick of the Wonka comparison; so I'll refrain from describing the factory store that way. It doesn't give off a whimsical vibe, anyways, and it's not the type of sweet treat that brings out the kid in all of us. No, Taza Chocolate is of a different variety - a more complicated, acquired taste like a fine wine or liqueur - and as you sample your way through the store, you'll find that you want to move slowly to figure out the intricacies of each flavor.
Taza's 45-minute factory tours bring you along the entire bean-to-bar process. On the way you'll learn about Taza's direct trade sourcing of ingredients from places like Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, and, of course, you'll try some samples as you get a glimpse at production. Perhaps most interesting to learn about is the cause of the most noticeable difference between Taza Chocolate and many other well-known chocolates: the texture. Taza is granular rather than ultra-smooth, a quality some find off-putting when first tasting it. This is the hallmark of the Mexican stone-ground tradition. The more common Swiss or European style of production includes a step called conching, a process that turns a bar of chocolate into a smooth, creamy mass of homogeneity. The stone-ground method has a much more rustic feel, something many chocolate lovers are surprised to find that they prefer. Taza co-founder Alex Whitmore spent time in Oaxaca City learning the craft with a master stone miller.
Like all factory tours, it ends right back in the gift shop—fortunate, because you'll definitely want to stock up. So many flavors, so little time. My favorites: chipotle chili, guajillo chili, and ginger. While I'm fixated on the chilis, most other people seem to pick salted almond as their favorite. The prices are higher than the average candy bar - but then again, these aren't average candy bars.
If the short factory tour leaves you wanting more, Taza actually runs international trips every year or so to really get a deep understanding of the chocolate-making process. The next trip is in March—a week in Belize exploring chocolate's Mayan origins, led by Whitmore.
Taza factory tours cost $5, which includes a $1 donation to Sustainable Harvest International. Tours run at various times Thursdays through Sundays. For more information, visit the Taza website.
Rachel Leah Blumenthal is a Somerville-based writer, photographer, and musician. She writes about food on her blog, Fork it over, Boston!, and runs Boston Food Bloggers, a networking community. For more information, visit RachelBlumenthal.net.
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