Guerilla Grilling’s mission is to learn first hand about local food. Folks teach us about chocolate, oysters, cheese, turkeys, vegetables—food still at its source, or if processed, done so in a fashion that emphasizes a manual or artisan tradition. In exchange, we take their wares and turn them into a meal. Gathering around the table at the end of our visit solidifies the people-to-people connections we make on these adventures. A lot of culinary crosstalk gets exchanged. Both cooks and producers share a stake in primary ingredients and are eager to learn from each other, and by the time everybody sits down to lunch the meal feels like a big family gathering. Food is the great connector.
Our Motley Crew
It just wouldn’t be the same if we visited a widget factory.
Which is what leads us to Somerville for a Guerilla Grilling double-header, back-to-back tours of Fiore di Nonno Cheese and Taza Chocolate.
Not that finding them is easy. We drive down Cambridge Street, take a left on Windsor. . . and wander deep into a neighborhood of rutted byways, anonymous warehouses and scrap metal yards wrapped in chain-link fencing topped with razor wire. Where is the chocolate? Where is the cheese? In search of directions we pull into a parking area, by a nameless loading dock, then watch, dumbfounded, as a crane hoists a red Chevrolet into the air and drops it into the maw of a metal compactor, where with a grinding screech of metal it is crushed to a pancake. This isn’t a Guerilla Grilling adventure—it’s the movie Brazil.
Eventually we find ourselves at the right building, it seems the loading dock is the main entrance. The building has recently been renovated and houses a circus of enterprises. We glimpse an old fashioned printing press, signs for dance and yoga studios, a pointer to a woodworking shop, various offices, and then a sign for one of our destinations—Taza Chocolate. No listing for Fiore di Nonno. A second Taza sign at the base of a stairwell pointed up, for three flights. . . to a puzzle of empty white corridors. We tried a couple of doors. Knock-knock. Hi, we’re looking for chocolate or mozzarella. No luck. Everything is new, white, without windows, and empty. Spooky. We run into a man in a white turban and ask directions. He hasn’t heard of either company. A second man also pleads ignorance. We get kind of goofy and begin making Twilight Zone noises that echo back at us from the empty corridor. Time to return to the ground floor and reconnoiter.
...until Aaron finds us!
Aaron Foster, the marketing guy for Taza chocolate and our host for the day, is waiting as we descend the stairs. He smiles knowingly and says, “Oh… that sign,” pointing to the one we had followed. “That’s a red herring—we moved.” We moved, I think, but we left the old sign in place, ha-ha! Interesting marketing strategy.
We are scheduled to visit Fiore di Nonno first, so after a very brief stop at Taza’s new offices so we’ll know how to find our way back, we follow Aaron back upstairs to a hallway we missed and there, behind a door, waits Fiore di Nonno.
The business operates in a large open space, uncluttered, immaculately clean, with light from big windows streaming down on stainless steel tables, a refrigerator, a sink, a hot water dispenser, a computer and a boom box. Lourdes Fiore Smith, the founder and owner of Fiore, and her assistant Natasha Boltukhova, are expecting us. But we’re late, and cheese can’t wait, so Lourdes and Natasha have already gotten started making mozzarella and burrata.
Lourdes always starts on time at 9 am to make her same day deliveries
On first impression making mozzarella seems like the simplest, most uncomplicated, low tech business you can imagine. A short list of ingredients, a little cutting and soaking, a little hand-shaping, a little sitting, and presto—melt in the mouth magic.
Curd...the backbone of one of life's perfect foods
Life should be so simple. Lourdes begins with curds. Curds, in case that cheese-making experiment you did back in the fourth grade has slipped your mind, are semi-solid lumps of curdled milk; the leftover liquid is whey. Little Miss Muffet, of tuffet fame, was probably enjoying something not far off from fresh cheese when arachniphobia ended her meal. You can make your own curds, if you like, from milk, vinegar, rennin or enzymes, but on even a modest commercial scale D.I.Y. curds involve a level of quality control and environmental management that can be finessed by simply purchasing fresh curds, as Lourdes does. Her curds come from New York, not surprising since she learned to make cheese in the Hoboken shop founded by her great-grandfather and still owned by one of her grandfather’s apprentices.
Natasha breaking up and tempering the curd
By the time we arrive Lourdes has already cut that days batch of New York State curds into manageable sizes and is soaking them in a vat of warm Somerville water. The water temperature is important in making it possible for Natasha, a petite woman wielding a paddle almost as large as she is, kneads and stretches the curds for a few minutes. In Lourdes’s view Somerville water also imparts a special flavor to her mozzarella that makes it a true product of terroir. Different curds, different water, different cheese.
And Natasha moments later, stretching the cheese
While Natasha paddles, kneading and stretching, Lourdes tells us her story. After more than two decades in the food business–line cook, pastry chef and then corporate chef—she needed a change. “I wanted a way of working that was true to my heart, spirit and passion.” She went way back to her roots and learned the cheese making technique that her great-grandfather brought from Italy to America in 1908.
The orignial Fiore cheese shop in Hoboken, NJ
After the kneading and stretching comes the real handwork, forming the warm, stretchy curds into balls, a skill that directly translates into the quality of the finished mozzarella’s texture. The pleasure of fresh mozzarella lies in the marriage of buttery flavor to a delicate texture, neither too firm nor too soft. That texture is the result of practice on thousands of mozzarella balls and Lourdes’s arms and hands are unmistakably strong. As she works she seems rooted to the floor, only her hands and arms moving, manipulating each piece of curd until it emerges as a perfectly smooth ball of cheese. She drops each smooth sphere into a brine of Somerville water and pretzel salt, where the mozzarella will sit for a few hours at room temperature before being sold and—ideally—consumed that day.
Lourdes shapping the mozzarella
As Lourdes works she tears small pieces of cheese from a curd, dips them in brine and passes them to us to taste. All of us utter a simultaneous uuummm as the buttery flavor flooded our mouths. In addition to fresh mozzarella Fiore also produces scamorza, a low moisture mozzarella with a sweet mild flavor that is a winter specialty, and braided string cheese of fresh mozzarella seasoned with coarse sea salt and nigella seeds.
Fiore di Nonno's "other" cheeses
We watch as Natasha flattens a second bath of cheese into discs for burrata, balls of fresh mozzarella molded around a core of different fillings. The traditional filling for this Apulian specialty is a mixture of fresh curd with sweet cream, but it is in the filling that Lourdes adds her own wrinkle. A half-dozen fillings are laid out on the table—plain mascarpone, fig, zatar, orange and thyme and garlic and onion. “Which ones do you want to try for lunch?” Lourdes asks. We want everything.
Sinful burratta filling
We find our way back to Taza’s offices, our stomachs growling, and follow Aaron to the roasting and winnowing room on the ground floor. Nuno and Peter peel off to set up the guerilla kitchen and start the grills outside. The rest of us meet Alex Whitmore, co-founder of Taza with Larry Slotnick, Mike Schechter production manager and Sara Ossi sales assistant. Taza Chocolate, we soon learn, is devoted, in their words, to “keeping the bean in the bar.”
Taza, Alex explained, is a “bean-to-bar” company. That is, they begin with whole cacao beans and control the entire process through the manufacture of chocolate bars. There are only a handful of bean-to-bar chocolate companies in the US and Taza claims to be the only one make 100% stone ground chocolate (more later). Most chocolatiers simply buy pre-made blocks, which they then melt and use to mold their own bars or truffles.
Ligthly toasted cocao beans
The farmers remove the beans from ripe pods, then allow them to ferment for six days, so they develop a complex “chocolate” flavor. The fermented beans then spend another six days drying in the sun, before they’re packed in big burlap bags and shipped to Somerville.
Chocolate production at Taza relies on a variety of machinery, but the type of machines and how they’re put to use distinguish Taza from large scale producers as much as the company’s insistence on sourcing ingredients in a way that promotes environmentalism and social responsibility.
Jody ponders the wonders of the winnower
Taza’s machines aren’t digitally driven stainless steel automatons. They remind me of illustrations from children’s books, big bold affairs with lots of exposed gears and colorful paintjobs. I tell myself not to make any references to Willy Wonka. We’re introduced to an enormous red German roasting machine, dating back to the 1950’s. Next we see the Italian winnowing machine from the 1960’s, a behemoth whose legs had to be temporarily removed so Alex and Larry could get it out of the candy store in the Dominican Republic where they found it. A gorgeous copper machine coats almonds with chocolate. A sea green wrapping machine that they bought with the winnower and are still working on how to use best completes the collection.
The beans are roasted by convection and tumbled with hot air
Taza beans benefit from a light roast, a technique that brings out complex flavor notes that aren’t yet detectable in unroasted beans, and would be overwhelmed by a darker roast (if this sounds a lot like the thinking behind lighter roasts of coffee, it is). We taste beans before and after roasting. Un-roasted beans have a light, almost coffee flavor while the roasted beans have a complex fruity flavor reminiscent of raisins and a deep chocolate taste. Dark roasting chocolate, like dark roasting coffee, masks both defects and distinctive flavors. This may be good for a giant company that wants to emphasize consistency in its product. But as Alex noted, Taza wants to emphasize a broader spectrum of flavors, not bury them. As I tasted the roasted beans my mind went to ways to use unsweetened chocolate and I wondered if I could get used to eating/drinking this chocolate without sugar, as I have with coffee.
A whole lot of nibs
Once the beans have cooled they are winnowed to separate the beans from the papery chaff. After beans are roasted and winnowed they naturally fragment into pieces called nibs. The nibs are transported upstairs to the cheery Taza Factory with yellow and orange walls. Here the grinding, molding and packaging take place. Unfortunately for us it’s a quiet day, there is no production, but two women sit quietly wrapping chocolate by hand—the younger one has the pinkest hair I have ever seen.
An example of Alex's craftmanship
Alex stands next to the molinos, the grinders, while explaining what I think is the coolest part of this story. Taza emphasizes the fact that their chocolate is stone ground. It’s one more piece in the bigger, more complex flavor story. Commercial steel milling, whether of grain or cocoa nibs, results in particles of uniform size and shape—and a sameness in the ultimate taste experience. Grinding chocolate with stones results in a certain inconsistency in the shape and size of the particles in the ground chocolate. The result is a certain coarseness in the mouth feel of the chocolate—and much larger spectrum of flavor.
Alex actually dresses the stones for the molinos himself, with a hammer and chisel. He learned how to do it in Oaxaca, cutting shallow spiral wedges at very specific angles into the heavy round stones. If the stones are cut poorly or worn and need to be redressed, they won’t grind properly. Although Alex claims that he’s still an amateur stone mason, his grindstones have been producing chocolate since 2007. In the molinos the chiseled surfaces of the opposing stones churn within centimeters of each other, grinding the nibs and any flavoring–cinnamon, vanilla, chilis, almonds–to a thick liquid.
Taza makes two styles of chocolate, “Mexican” and “bar,” and what happens next depends on the style of the batch under production.
Discs of Mexican Chocolate
Mexican chocolate is made by simply adding organic cane sugar to the chocolate liquid, tempering then mixture, and finally pouring it into round molds. The molds are disk-shaped, with spiral cuts in them, producing little chocolate replicas of the grindstones in the molinos.
Bar chocolate is ground once again to break down the sugar crystals, then tempered and molded. Taza has 60%, 70% and 80% bars which means that the 40%, 30% and 20% is made up in sugar and a little cocoa butter to fatten up the bar. As you might imagine, the bar chocolate is more refined both in flavor and texture.
Taza's Chocolate Bars
Without a doubt Taza chocolate has–and there’s no other way to describe this–a certain grittiness. For someone accustomed to the blandishments of Swiss or Belgian chocolate Tasa’s texture can take some getting used to. Or not. “People who love us are fanatic about our chocolate,” Alex says. “And the people who don’t love us hate us. No, they don’t just hate us—they think we shouldn’t be on this planet.” In Alex’s view, the coarser texture of Taza chocolate is intimately connected to its broader, more complex flavor.
It’s an interesting question: What makes great chocolate?
There’s something so undeniably appealing in Alex and Larry’s story. Smart college educated entrepreneurs. They think they want to open a chocolate shop. They go to Oaxaca, Mexico to see how they make chocolate. They fall in love with the chocolate culture and hang out with some chocolate makers to see how it’s done. They learn about chocolate, then they find the farmers and get to know them. Then the chocolate guys teach them about roasting, winnowing, grinding and sweetening. They realize that it makes more sense to make chocolate bars than open a chocolate shop. One of them becomes a stonemason, for God’s sake.
Alex wear's his heart on his shirt, not his sleeve
Do we buy it? Is gritty chocolate great? Or are we drinking the Kool-Aid? Do we want Taza chocolate to be great because the passion of Alex, Larry and the Taza team is itself so compelling? Are we uncritically buying in to a belief that because something is local it must be better?
I think not.
Sicily popped up while I was pondering this. In May I visited the town of Modica which is famous for its chocolate tradition that dates back to the 16th century when Spaniards, who had visited Mexico, brought the Aztec chocolate techniques to Sicily. Modica is in the process of getting the first in the world IGP (like DOC) designation for their chocolate because they are convinced that preserving and celebrating their chocolate tradition is critical. Their chocolate is even grittier than Taza’s and it’s un-tempered and when it shows a bloom of white cocoa butter it looks like a mistake. I was fascinated by the process and intrigued with the different flavors—black pepper, ginger, cinnamon—but in the end, it wasn’t much fun to eat. It ripped the roof of my mouth. Italians in Turin modified the Mexican technique by conching and adding dairy products to chocolate to soften both the texture and the flavor, essentially creating the model that most of us think about when we imagine an ideal chocolate today. This silky chocolate has made people happy for centuries. Why go back?
In a word, flavor. All the Taza bars are fabulous, but if you really want to taste the essence of the cacao bean in the bar, try the 80% and judge for yourself. Close your eyes, put a piece on your tongue and let it melt. It will take a little time since it is pure chocolate and raw sugar, but if you take the time to really taste it’s as though you’ve never tasted chocolate before. It’s made for eating, but eating carefully. You wouldn’t sit down and inhale an entire bar in a sitting as you might a milk chocolate bar. You’d keep a bar on the shelf in the kitchen or a drawer in your desk and break off a small square and nibble on it in the afternoon, or serve it after dinner on a plate with nuts and dried fruits. It’s not a truffle, but it doesn’t aspire to be.
Alex explains the Taza way to Jody
Taza approaches chocolate as food rather than candy. The Mexican style of chocolate, whether from Oaxaca, Somerville or Sicily is made for drinking or as an ingredient in cooking. Bar chocolate is meant for savoring, the way good wine is meant for savoring. Once you start thinking this way, you approach this chocolate from a different angle. Taza is offering us a new local tradition with healthy superior tasting chocolate. You don’t need much.
I’ve concluded, after tasting both their Mexican and bar chocolate daily for the past week, that I do buy it. Taza chocolate is the real thing and I just have to figure out how to incorporate it into my life. Rather than chocolate being a guilty pleasure, think of Taza as a healthy responsible addition to your diet. It’s organic, local and delicious.
Anyway…on to the lunch:
Bean to table - cacao dusted venison and coco powder sprinkled mushrooms
It was the GG team, the folks from Taza and Fiore di Nonno around the table. The sun pouring in was so strong Alison wore sunglasses. The biggest deal was the venison that Nuno rubbed with crushed cocoa nibs before grilling. I found that I couldn’t get enough of the flavor with the venison so I sprinkled more crushed nibs on top. It was an amazing marriage; instead of jumping out at you, the chocolate flavor kind of melted in with the meat to give a rich round flavor. We also enjoyed a wonderful burrata with a fig filling, which turned out to be an unbelievable pairing with the chocolate venison, Nuno also grilled some scamorza and heirloom polenta from Anson Mills and there were portabella mushrooms and Rialto bread to grill as well. Arugula salad was a refreshing balance to the rich grilled food. We had Charles River Porter from the Cambridge Brewing Company and—how could we not?–hot chocolate. The refrain was…this is sooooo good.
A portrait of the afternoon's bounty
We left with goody bags, full stomachs and new friends. And later that afternoon when our energy was lagging, we found that the chocolate nibs and the new not-yet-released chocolate covered almonds helped get us over the hump into service.
My favorite things from the day were the simple unflavored burratini—little bundles of joy—and the chocolate covered almonds. You can find further information on both Taza Chocolate and Fiore di Nonno fresh mozzarella at www.tazachocolate.com and www.fioredinonno.com.