Cotton Tree Chocolate is a little shop on Front Street, in downtown Punta Gorda where the visitor will find chocolate delights beyond the usual edible treats. But before I introduce you to these treats, let me tell you how Cotton Tree Chocolate does their “stuff”.
My initial visit to the shop was scheduled for 9:00 on a Friday morning. I was to meet with the shop owner/manager to go through the chocolate processing method but when I got there the hostess, Juli, was already conducting a tour for visitors to the Punta Gorda area. So I stood back and just watched. This particular group was from the United States, and they were at the tail ends of their vacation so what a good time to visit a chocolate shop. Lucky people back home will be on the receiving end of delicious treats. The group was taken through the steps of the chocolate processing method from beans to final product.
Cotton Tree Chocolate buys its chocolate from the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, a cooperative for cacao farmers, in the form of fermented and dried beans. Once the beans are dried the husks can be removed and this is done with a grinding process that is generally done here when the weather is very still.
Then the staff at Cotton Tree Chocolate use a secret tool for separating the nibs from the outer husks—a hair dryer. This blows the husks away leaving the nibs. The nibs are what get processed into sweet edible chocolate.
This removes the cocoa butter from chocolate, leaving behind a cocoa powder, which can be sold on its own, and a cocoa liquor (not alcoholic). The rest of the nibs are put through a grinder to make a chocolate paste.
To make chocolate, nibs, chocolate paste, cacao butter, vanilla bean and sugar are mixed together in a conch.
The conch is essentially a mixing vat with grinding stones inside that grind the mixture to a smooth, liquidy chocolate sweetness. This makes dark chocolate. In order to make milk chocolate, milk powder is added to the mixture. The process of grinding takes 3 days to make the mixture completely smooth.
Next, the chocolate undergoes a process called tempering. The purpose of this process is to ensure that the chocolate has a uniform sheen and a crisp bite to it. When chocolate snaps it is tempered properly. Some chocolatiers use the manual method of tempering which involves heating up and cooling the chocolate to very specific temperatures. At Cotton Tree Chocolate, the chocolatiers use an electronic machine to perform the tempering process.
After tempering the chocolate is ready to be poured into moulds. Some of the nibs can be used to decorate the bars of chocolate and to add more chocolate flavour. Mint can be added as well for a minty chocolate.
When the bars have set they are wrapped by hand into wrappers made for Cotton Tree Chocolate to be sold in the shop/factory. On display you can find, chocolate lip balm, chocolate soap, earrings made from cacao beans as well as different varieties of chocolate bars.
The chocolate bars that are made at Cotton Tree Chocolate have a range of between 40% and 70% cacao butter.
Some of the products that are manufactured with cacao by various companies around the Toledo District include soap, lip balm, earrings (made with the bean) and are available for purchase at Cotton Tree Chocolate.