Big Tree Farms chocolate factory

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You don’t need a golden ticket to visit this chocolate factory, but you do have to be able to find it. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll drive right by the Big Tree Farms chocolate production facility, housed in the world’s largest commercial building built of bamboo. Make sure to watch for the big banyan tree, where you’ll turn off the main road, and there, tucked back in the village of Abiansemal, you’ll find Big Tree Farms.

We’re here for a tour, to learn about the company, about the building and its unique design, and about the approach to chocolate making that differentiates Big Tree Farms. Of course, we’re hoping to taste some chocolate too. Our friendly and enthusiastic guide, Ningseh, gives us a quick overview of the factory while we enjoy a complimentary warm chocolate drink (although it’s a humid 30+ degrees so we don’t need any further inspiration to warm up). Energized by the chocolate, and dressed in our mandatory ‘oompa loompa’ sanitation hats, we’re now ready to explore the factory.

Even though the grand opening took place in November 2011, the factory is still a work in progress. The current building houses a warehouse for raw ingredients, production and packaging facilities, and Big Tree Farm’s Indonesian head office. A retail store, commercial kitchen and café are being built out back to better facilitate consumer interest and tours like the one we’re taking.  Designed by an American architect, now relocated to Bali, and built with the guidance of a Balinese Master bamboo builder, it’s an unconventional structure, but it works. The walls are woven from strips of bamboo, allowing air to flow through for natural ventilation, and the third floor atrium with its tented roof is completely open, creating a cavernous loft in the treetops. Production areas all have internal glass windows so everyone can see each other. It’s part of the Big Tree Farms belief in transparency.

From a business that started out in 2000 as an organic produce farm on just under an eighth of an acre, Big Tree Farms has grown into a vertically-integrated, multi-product food company with over 14,000 local farming partners and customers around the world. The philosophy is to build a business that works both economically and ecologically, not just for the owners, but for the farmers and communities Big Tree Farms relies on. As we wind our way through the factory, seeing chocolate making in action, we can appreciate the emphasis on transparency and sustainability at every step of the process

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To make their organic chocolate products, Big Tree Farms works with over 2,000 farmers on the island of Bali, and another 1,000 farmers in Aceh. The ‘beans’ (which are actually seeds from the cocoa pod fruit) are harvested, fermented and then dried. To keep their products ‘raw’ (raw foods are thought to maintain more of their nutrients that their cooked counterparts), Big Tree Farms never heats the beans above 45 degrees C. Then the beans are crushed to remove the skins and turn the whole beans into nibs. I tried to do this manually – which Big Tree sometimes does at the request of certain customers – and couldn’t even get one flake of the skin to come off. It takes practice and patience to peel the beans. The nibs are inspected and sorted – by hand – for quality control to ensure all the skin has been removed. Approved nibs are then pressed for 8 hours to make cocoa powder, and then further refined for 12 hours to create an even smoother paste. From here, the paste is pressed to separate out the excess oils. This is where the cocoa butter you find in lotions comes from. The cocoa paste is mixed with the right balance of oil and sugar and then tempered to prepare it to be transformed into consumer products. In addition to chocolate bars, Big Tree Farms sells raw cocoa powder, whole cocoa beans, and cocoa nibs.

To sweeten the chocolate, Big Tree Farms uses organic coconut palm sugar, another one of their food products. As it is unrefined and has a lower glycemic index, coconut palm sugar is the current darling of nutritionists. Dr. Oz and other high-profile health experts are touting it as the next ‘big ingredient’ and suggesting it is a better choice over traditional refined cane sugar (your basic white sugar used in many commercial food products and one of the targets in the obesity crisis).

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Organic, raw, nutritious chocolate – is this the ultimate feel-good, guilt-free indulgence? You’ll have to try it and decide for yourself. Big Tree Farms is certainly working hard to give you as many reasons as they can to help you feel good about their sustainable food products.  And they might just be having a little fun while doing it. Willy Wonka would be proud.

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Here is a recipe from Big Tree Farms for their Spicy Morning of the World hot cocoa drink.

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This is the Jamu of Cacao that gets our blood flowing in the morning.  Morning elixirs are an important for the majority of we humans, everywhere.  Every culture, in their own way, greats the morning with some kind of ritual that bridges the dream time to the awake time. Our morning ritual uses our cold pressed raw cacao powder, our SweetTree coconut palm sugar and various spices that not only awakes the mind, but also invigorates the body.  Cacao is a stimulant in that it is one of the best vasodilators in the world, which means it expands your veins, allowing more oxygen to flow into your body.  So your cells feel alive and awake without the jittery caffeine manky manky.

Recipe (always adjust for personal preference):

2 cups hot water
4 heaping tablespoons Big Tree Farms raw cacao powder (6 tablespoons if you like it really rich)
4 tablespoons SweetTree coconut palm sugar (or sweeten to taste)
2 tablespoons CocoHydro coconut water powder (original flavor)
1 Pinch of Big Tree Farms Balinese sea salt
2 Pinches of cayenne pepper
Dash of freshly ground nutmeg
Sprinkle of cinnamon

Stir the above ingredients in an oversized mug that requires you to use 2 hands to bring it to your lips.  After all, this is a morning ritual and using two hands tends to make you appreciate the moment all the more. We love using coconut milk to give it a little bit of extra richness and mouth feel, but you can you use whatever kind of milk you prefer.

pan con tomate

I spent four months living in Barcelona as part of an educational exchange during University. It was a wonderful learning experience. But, more enjoyably, it was a wonderful eating experience. I fell in love with the array of ingredients on offer at markets like La Boqueria, with tapas-style dining, with indulgences like chocolate con churros. But the dish I loved most was pan con tomate, a very simple preparation of toasted bread with tomato. It is often served in restaurants instead of bread and butter like we are used to at home, or offered as an inexpensive tapa. In the summertime, when Ontario tomatoes are at their peak, this is a wonderful way to showcase fresh tomatoes (and you can just pretend you are sitting in the sun on La Rambla).

MAKES 4 SERVINGS

4 slices wholegrain artisan bread, toasted
1 garlic clove, cut in half
2 medium tomatoes, ripe (see note on tomatoes below)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

There are so many tomato varieties. And with all the heirloom options that are being resurrected, the selection is only getting greater. You want to find a tomato that is nice and fleshy – not watery – or the tomato water will make the bread soggy. Look for vine-ripened or field tomatoes that are not too heavy when you pick them up. In a pinch you can certainly use roma (plum) tomatoes.

Cut the tomatoes in half. If there is a lot of water, shake some of it out over the sink.

Just before you are ready to serve, toast the bread. Immediately after you remove the bread from the toaster, wipe the cut side of the garlic clove across the entire surface of the toast. This will give a hint of garlic flavour.

Take a tomato half and rub the cut side across the toast, giving it some good pressure as you go to spread the tomato flesh onto the bread. You should be creating a light ‘paste’ of tomato. If my tomatoes are not quite ripe enough, I sometimes ‘cheat’ and use a box grater to create a tomato pulp that can be spread on the toast. Just watch your fingers as you grate the tomato.

Once each slice is dressed with tomato, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Top with salt and pepper.

squash and apple soup

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Although winter weather often makes me want to hibernate, a picnic in the snow is an enticing reason to get outside. Pack up some savoury bread pudding made in muffin cups for individual, easily portable servings; a thermos full of this squash and apple soup; and perhaps an almond butter oatmeal cookie or two for dessert and you have yourself an al fresco feast. A few years ago, some girlfriends and I spent an afternoon in Muskoka, snowshoeing out on Three Mile Lake, scouting for the perfect picnic spot. Once we found it, we carved ourselves some ‘seats’ in the snow and enjoyed a mug full of this soup.

Even when I am not preparing for a winter picnic, I like to make a big pot of soup on a Sunday afternoon and then I have it for the week. It freezes well, so you can pack as individual servings and then defrost for a quick lunch or dinner. Make this soup spicier if you like, or eliminate the cayenne altogether if you prefer it milder. Sometimes I will add a dash of maple syrup to the pureed soup, just for a little Canadian flare.

MAKES APPROXIMATELY 8-10 CUPS

2 tbsp unsalted butter (or 2 tbsp olive oil)
1 large onion, chopped
2 medium-sized butternut squash, skin and seeds removed, roughly cut into cubes
2 medium-sized apples – choose something that is a combination of sweet and tart like Spy or Fuji
1 tbsp fresh thyme
1 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
pinch all spice
pinch cayenne
4 to 5 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper
handful toasted pumpkin seeds

tip: To make whole squash easier to work with, cut in half and remove seeds with a spoon or ice cream scoop. Place squash cut side down on baking sheet lined with tin foil. Bake in 400F oven for 10 minutes. Allow to cool. This softens the squash and means less work to peel it.

Melt butter over medium heat in large pot (or heat oil if using instead). Add the onion and cook until really softened, about 15-20 minutes. The longer cooking time for the onions is worth it, so wait it out. Add cinnamon, allspice and cayenne and stir into softened onions. You can always add more cayenne later so best not to overdo it in the beginning (I learned this the hard way!).

Add the squash and apples to put and toss to combine with onions and spices. Add brown sugar. Pour 4 cups of the vegetable stock into the pot. Add fresh thyme.

Simmer for 20 minutes. Using a fork, test to see if squash and apple are fully softened. Both should be tender enough to easily insert fork all the way through. Continue to simmer for another 5-10 minutes if squash and apple are not fully cooked.

Remove from heat. Blend until smooth with a hand blender. You can adjust thickness with remaining vegetable stock (or water). Add more cayenne if you like a little more spice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Return to heat to warm before serving. Spoon soup into individuals bowls. Sprinkle with toasted pumpkin seeds.

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oven roasted tomatoes

You can buy sundried tomatoes, or you can make these. Once you make your first batch, you’ll be hooked. Slow roasting tomatoes like this is a great way to capture the taste of summer. You can store them in oil in the fridge for a week weeks. And the oil will also be delicious. These are perfect for adding to salads and pastas, or serving alongside a cheese and charcuterie selection. And I like to add them to mac n cheese as well.

2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes…if you have larger plum tomatoes, you can cut them into quarters
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
olive oil
salt and pepper

Preheat over to 325F.

Line baking sheet with tin foil. Cut cherry or grape tomatoes in half. Place cut-side up on lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. In small bowl, combine minced garlic (a garlic press is particularly helpful here) and olive oil. Pour garlic oil mixture over tomatoes. Slow roast in the oven until edges start to crinkle and wither, approximately 45 minutes, depending on size of tomatoes.

Transfer to a glass jar to store.  Pour the oil left in the roasting pan into the jar. It will be full of flavour.