Gabrielle R. Borromeo
The Daily Tribune | April 10, 2014
Ever since the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out with Johnny Depp starring as Willy Wonka, the dream to enter a chocolate haven was one I always hoped for. Nine years later, to my surprise, my chocolate dream came true and, of all places, in my father’s hometown and not Switzerland or Belgium as I had imagined.
It all began when I was invited to the Ralfe Gourmet Chocolate Boutique in Cebu City. The second I was ushered into the room of chocolates, I melted. The fountain overflowing with liquid chocolate; the walls painted in chocolate, etched with drawings that told a chocolate story; the enchanting chandelier that lit the table laden with chocolates covered in golden wrappers.
There were also tables with heavy bars of chocolates on top, jars of chocolate spreads, rolls of tablea, tetra packs of cocoa flavored drinks, a variety of truffles, a tray of delightful cookies and a basket of fresh-baked chocolate bread. I couldn’t believe it. I was actually in a chocolate room, a chocolate heaven right before my very eyes. My heart was palpitating. I was back in Cebu, my childhood hometown, and I never knew there was a place like this.
The boutique is where pure cocoa is made into pure chocolate confections. First, the football-shaped cocoa fruit is cracked open, which looks just like the inside of a guyabano (soursop) fruit — white, soft and moist. The taste is more surprising though, being sweet. The meat of the fruit is separated from the cocoa beans. It is important that these beans are carefully selected, cleaned and sorted out. The beans collected are placed in sweat boxes where their chocolate flavor will heighten and develop. This is the fermentation process. Then they are dried and roasted to perfection with controlled heat and a specific amount of time.
Next, the shell of the beans is removed to have a smoother touch and less bitter distinction to the chocolates. I was shown the different beans from every process so I could differentiate and appreciate. During the tour, a man was actually pounding the beans with a huge wooden mortar and pestle, turning them into a chocolate mass, also called chocolate liquor. But that was just to recreate the traditional way of making chocolate as Ralfe’s now uses machines to pound the roasted cocoa nibs so as not to be labor intensive.
The end of this process is the creation of tablea. I was also given the privilege to try the newly-made tablea. It was bitter, but others enjoy it this way, calling it the unsweetened chocolate.
Mountain Lass Turns Magnate
The woman behind the chocolate success that is Ralfe Gourmet is Raquel T. Choa. But her success did not come easy.
When Raquel was only a little girl, she lived in the mountains of Balamban, Cebu and had to cross seven rivers before getting to school, which meant she had to wake up very early. They lived where it was abundant in cocoa, so her grandmother Leonila, who had full passion for everything she did, taught Raquel the best use of their parcel of land. Sheimbued in her the strict regimen of how to get the best out of chocolate, turning it into chocolate liquor to create pure chocolate bliss.
Everyday, Raquel was expected to work hands-on before and after school or she wasn’t permitted to leave the house. Raquel also learned from her grandmother how to drink pure chocolate without the sugar, mostly for the reason that sugar was badly needed in their other business, coconut candy making. Now she still drinks it this way.
Whatever the family made out of the cocoa would be sold in the market and the money they made was how they lived their simple life.
Life for little Raquel was also very disciplined. By 5 p.m., dinner was served and before 6 everyone had to be inside the house since they lived in a remote area, which was rebel-infested. No one could be loitering around to avert any danger. When there were gun shots, everyone hid under the house to pray together for safety. But not even that could stop little Raquel from excelling in class; she always had high honors.
When Raquel moved to Laguna with her parents, she forgot all about chocolate and started selling sampaguita in a unique way. Being very creative, she fixed her hair with the flowers and wore it also around her. She was soon known as the sampaguita girl.
Years passed, and it was only later in life that she went back to chocolate when she married Alfred Choa, a mechanical engineer who grew up in his father’s canning business.
The husband and wife were able to formulate a production line, Ralfe’s Gourmet. It started when Raquel kept making recipes from her creative cooking, playing with the chocolates both in her mind and through her artistic food preparation. Her gastronomic concoctions were endless; she experimented on different flavors, adding them to her luscious chocolate drinks. She played with ingredients to create sumptuous chocolate cakes.
Raquel, indeed, got the experimenting from her grandmother, who loved the surprises that tablea could magically create from all her ideas. She was soon acknowledged by chefs when they knew about her chocolates, and they would even ask her to make chocolate for the hotels they were working at. Her reputation started to grow also by word of mouth. Later, even the Department of Agriculture bought from Ralfe’s Gourmet. It showcased her ingenuity as it elevated the Philippine cacao to international standards of chocolate making.
The Chocolate Chamber (TCC) is the outlet where Raquel displays all of her chocolates, ready for buying. Here, one can order a hot cup of chocolate bliss or a cold one depending on one’s pleasure. A variety of chocolate cakes (vegan, cashew, old-fashioned) and chocolate scones, buns and oh-so-flaky ensaymadas filled with chocolate liquor and chocolate chunk and nib cookies are also available for one to enjoy along with chocolate drinks flavored with hibiscus, salted caramel, chamomile, orange, vanilla, cinnamon, bubblegum, cherry, malt, etc.
The classy looking restaurant is designed so elegantly, a clear glass separating the outside from the inside. It could pass for a romantic cafe getaway in Paris. The seats are comfortable with additional scarfs in it for guests to use when cold. In this generation, TCC is definitely capture-ready for Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for all the world to see!
The Chocolate Chamber is located at P. Quirino Mabolo Street Cebu City.
For more information on The Chocolate Chamber, visit the Facebook page under the same name. For more information on Ralfe’s Gourmet, visit http://www.ralfegourmet.com.
Gabe organizes what she sees around her and loves to put it into words. She has been contributing her articles for the Daily Tribune newspaper, Tinig ng Marino (maritime) newspaper, Cook magazine, Appetite magazine and F&B World magazine.
You can contact Gabrielle at: firstname.lastname@example.org