Lola (LAW-lah) is the Filipino term for ”˜grandmother,’ although the lola in question here is not my own. Her name is Lola Azon, the grandmother of my good friend, Toby. Toby has a supersonic metabolism which allows him to down a 12-0z cocoa steamer everyday. Needless to say, we are friends not because of our metabolisms (which are total opposites) but because we’re always looking for that soul-satisfying cup of tsokolate.
Toby has long been telling me that the ideal tsokolate to which he judges all others is the one his Lola Azon makes: thick and robust, it coats the tongue and goes down easily. What’s incredible to me is that she makes the tsokolate tablets (tableas) herself! ”˜Always has,’ Toby tells me. Now in her 80s, Lola Azon continues to make this specialty that her family loves and which has become tradition in their homes.
“She roasts the cocoa beans for about three hours and then she grinds them manually,” Toby explains. “I remember the mixture becoming oily because of the cocoa butter that would seep out from the beans. The ground mixture is then mixed with sugar and she forms the tableas by herself.”
The chocolate balls weigh a little over 2 ounces, they’re like little fists, much larger than the flat pellets that are sold commercially. Toby gave me a few tableas; since his lola lives in Bicol, I knew the supply was precious. “Bite down on one before you cook it,” he said. “See how you like it.”
Knowing how much my friend cherishes this tsokolate, I follow his instructions. First I bit on one tablea. It had been sitting at room temperature for several minutes, so my teeth glided easily through it. Knowing how solid some of these tableas can be, I was worried I’d have to hack at it with a hammer.
The chocolate ball tastes like its smell ”“ earthy, redolent of coffee fields, cocoa beans, and sugar. At first bite, there is a pungent top note of chocolate that crumbles on the tongue, crunches down into sugar, and then a smoky interplay of cocoa and earth. Slightly pasty on the palate, I feel like I’m tasting the age-old practice of tablea-making.
Following the advised ratio of one cup water per ball, I stir the liquid in a pot over medium-high heat, gently mashing the chocolate so that it will melt evenly. I feel great reverence as I continue to stir, even though beads of sweat trickle down the sides of my face. Though I have never met this woman, I have deep respect that she’s made what’s in my pot right now. Somehow, preparing food means more when you know where it’s come from.
As I keep on stirring to prevent the mixture from scorching, I realize that I’m getting a food facial (always a good thing) from the steam arising from the pot, the aroma of nuts and coffee washing over me.
When it had reduced by half already, the liquid remained thin and much too sweet, so unlike the thick chocolate I was supposed to achieve. So I poured in some milk and when it had heated, tasted it again. Now it was milkier but still watery, though it did have a satisfying charred chocolate flavor that softened as it lingered in my mouth.
I felt like I had failed since I didn’t do justice to Lola Azon’s tablea. When I told Toby how my tsokolate had turned out, he admitted that his turns out exactly the same way. “I’ve watched my mom and my lola make it, and it thickens before my very eyes. I just don’t know why it doesn’t happen when I’m the one preparing it,” he says shrugging.
Is it technique? age? Whatever it is, Toby and I are set to watch his mom prepare the tsokolate next week ”“ perhaps the thick tsokolate of my dreams? If so, my Christmas will be complete! You can bet I’ll be taking notes (and photos!).
To be continued…