Soma: 20 Ways of Looking at a Chocolate Bar
Flourless fudge cake. Whisky-chocolate gelato. Preserved plum truffles. Gianduja drinking chocolate. Walk into one of Soma’s shops in Toronto and you may never leave, because David Castellan and Cynthia Leung aren’t your average bean-to-bar makers. Their imaginations run wild with possibilities for chocolate, which has led them to make much more than award-winning bars: They’ve created a paradise for chocolate lovers of all sorts.
Yet back in 2003, they didn’t think they were doing anything remarkable. There weren’t any small chocolate makers in North America (save for Scharffen Berger, debatably). No one was using coffee roasters for cacao beans or jail-breaking Indian spice grinders to make chocolate. Heck, the term “bean to bar” hadn’t even been born.
So when the couple decided to start their own chocolate company, they looked across the pond, to Europe. In that model, making chocolate is only part of the equation. Stores also offer truffles, cakes, cookies, bark, and any other chocolatey treat you can think of. And David and Cynthia could think of a lot of treats. “Our brains were overactive,” Cynthia recalled. “And because we’re an actual couple, the ideas never stopped.” They brainstormed riffs on traditional Italian cookies, decadent creamy gelato, chocolate tree “branches” filled with nut butter, layered chocolate tumbles that resemble “a chocolate version of the turducken.”
The first store opened with a bang, showcasing all of those products, plus high-quality “microbatch” chocolate (what we would now call bean to bar). They called the company “Soma,” after the delicious, mystical substance in the ancient Indian Rigveda and the more modern Brave New World.
Starting out, there was almost no one to talk to about how to make small-batch chocolate. “Anyone who knew anything about chocolate worked at big companies,” David recalled. In fact, the trained pastry chef had only learned how to make bean-to-bar chocolate by attending an industrial chocolate-making course taught by Richardson Researches back in 2001. The other attendees? Mars, Hershey’s, and other multimillion-dollar players. (In 2000, craft chocolate guru Maricel Presilla and Mott Greene from the Grenada Chocolate Company had taken the class, but in general, it was just the big boys.)
In fact, that’s exactly why this month I decided to write about a Canadian chocolate maker in a series about Americans. The bean-to-bar revolution belongs to all of North America, and Soma was one of the first to start it. Only now, 11 years later, are countless American and Canadian makers following in their footsteps.
After the Richardson chocolate course, David bought all of the textbooks he could find and periodically called up the only two other guys doing something similar (one is now at Tcho, the other at Guittard). Because he bought top-notch beans, even a small batch of chocolate was a “precious experiment,” somewhere in the area of $500 to $600.
They also used their favorite European makers as a model, in particular Domori. “We learned about flavor profiles from them,” David explained. In particular, in 2004 they were captivated by Domori’s single-origin Madagascar bar. “It had this crazy unique taste,” David recalled.
Madagascar is gateway cacao. It’s known for its fruity notes, everything from juicy ripe berries to mouth-puckering citrus. I still remember the first time I tried a Madagascar bar: “Chocolate can taste like this?” I thought. It surprises even those of us with the dullest of palates, and it immediately made me want to try single-origin chocolate from other countries, to see what else I could taste. David and Cynthia had tasted plenty of Madagascar before 2004, but that Domori did something special to them.
And when they started making their own Madagascar bars, the chocolate also did something special to their customers. “People would come in and look at the shelf, and if there was no Madagascar, they would just walk out again,” David remembered. “They wouldn’t buy anything else.” While cookies and gelato had always been crowd-pleasers, he now realized that bean-to-bar chocolate could be too. Soma started focusing on products for this new breed of chocolate lover. “The microbatch part,” he said, “became easy. Because all you had to do was fulfill their quest for chocolate knowledge.”
Fulfill that they have. Over the years Soma has won dozens of awards, most recently the 2015 gold prize for origin dark chocolate bars in the Americas from the International Chocolate Awards. Part of what makes Soma unique is that the company celebrates chocolate in so many different forms. “The stores,” David said, reflect “20 different ideas of what chocolate is.”
I’d argue it’s more than 20. Everyone has her own idea of what happens at a chocolate shop, which can get a little confusing.
The most befuddling terms? Chocolatier and chocolate maker. Chocolatiers take pre-made chocolate and create ganaches, truffles, bark, and other delicious concoctions out of it. It’s an art unto itself, one that deserves celebration too. Chocolate makers, on the other hand, take cacao beans and roast, grind, and otherwise shape them into bars (click here for a more detailed description of the process). Most places specialize in one or the other because, while they’re related, they’re different skill sets, and each is infinitely complicated by itself. Soma, on the other hand, specializes in both: They make their own bean-to-bar chocolate and then use it to make ganache for truffles, bark, and other delicacies that you’d usually find at a chocolatier. In fact, by the end of 2015, 90 percent of all of the chocolate they use will be their own microbatch chocolate (they use a tiny bit of Valrhona and such to enrobe truffles).
Of course, they also put their own spin on truffles and other treats. Cynthia applies her architecture and design background to make some of the most beautiful, unusual bonbons around. Take the Arbequina olive oil truffle (above left). To make it, they remove the cocoa butter from Chuao cacao from Venezuela and replace it with olive oil, creating an airy, light ganache. “So we chose a tall and elegant shape for it,” Cynthia explained. Meanwhile the roasted cacao bean truffle is shaped like a cacao pod, and instead of ganache, you’ll find a whole roasted bean encased in dark chocolate. “Not to get too symbolic,” Cynthia said. “But the chocolate was born out of that cocoa bean.” The truffle expresses that sentiment wordlessly.
“As you work with these flavor profiles, they kind of get their own little personalities.” Cynthia continued. For example, to celebrate their 11th anniversary, they’re working on an 11-layer tumble “with 11 different personalities seamed together,” Cynthia laughed, explaining that she’s still finalizing the flavors. Whatever they are, “they’ll be like growth rings on a tree,” she said, noting that it will be a combination of single origins and signature flavor combinations.
Speaking of trees, one of Soma's most unusual creations is a birch branch mold filled with hazelnut butter and sour cherry jelly. "My dad found me a bunch of twigs from his farm where we hike," Cynthia said. "They were so beautiful I had a mould carved out of one of the branches. It felt really personal and reminded me of home: Birch trees are very Canadian. If you go out of the city, there are forests of them everywhere."
Of course, at their stores, you’re hardly in the middle of a forest. Soma’s first store is in Toronto’s distillery district, and in 2010 they opened a second location in the West end. And then there’s the cacao bean lab, also in the West end, where they roast beans, grind cocoa liquor, do experiments, and otherwise make magic.
“Wherever we go,” Cynthia said, “our brains are wired to wonder, ‘Can we do that in chocolate?’”
Recipe: Fig and Balsamic Vinegar Truffles
This recipe will make you look like an experienced chocolatier, even if you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s because Soma’s expert palate works double-time for you here, combining figs and balsamic vinegar with deep chocolatey flavor to create an interesting juxtaposition. They recommend using open-mouth figs from Iran, but any good-quality dried figs will work. They also recommend using their 70 percent chocolate from Camino Verde, Ecuador. However, any good-quality craft chocolate that isn’t too fruity or acidic will do the trick as well. Last but not least, keep a quick reading thermometer handy. “Making chocolates,” says Cynthia, “is all about the right temperature.”
Makes approximately 4 dozen truffles
3 ounces dried figs
5 ounces 35% cream
16 ounces dark 70% chocolate, finely chopped into small pieces
4 teaspoons honey
1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1.5 ounces aged balsamic vinegar
1 cup cocoa powder
1. Keep butter out at room temperature for approximately 1 hour to soften.
2. Soak dried figs in warm water for 30 minutes until soft, drain off water.
3. Puree the figs or chop as finely as you can. Set aside.
4. In a stainless steel bowl combine the cream, 5 ounces of the dark chocolate, and the honey.
5. Heat a pot of water to a gentle boil and set the stainless steel bowl with the ingredients on top of the pot.
6. Whisk ingredients together until they come together as a shiny and emulsified ganache. When the temperature of the mixture is at 104°F take it off the heat.
7. Cool slightly to 95°F and whisk in soft unsalted butter and fig balsamic vinegar. Taste-test the ganache and add more vinegar if needed.
8. Stir in all the fig paste from step 3.
9. Cool at room temperature for a few hours until slightly stiff and pipeable (like cake icing.)
10. Use a piping bag and a star-shaped piping tip to make little fig-shaped portions. If you do not have a piping bag, you can instead spoon little mounds into cloud-like shapes or form into small balls (approximately 2 teaspoons each).
11. Chill in the refrigerator for an hour.
1. Put 1 cup of cocoa powder in a bowl.
2. Gently melt the remainder of dark chocolate (11 ounces) in a stainless steel bowl on top of a pot of gently boiling water. The chocolate should be melted to 105°F. Once it reaches that temperature, take the bowl off the heat.
3. Take an ice cream scoop or deep spoon and coat it in the chocolate, then turn it upside down to remove excess chocolate. Place truffles one at a time in the center of a scoop, rolling them around to make sure they are completely coated in the chocolate. Then immediately place into the cocoa powder. Shake and move the bowl to ensure the truffle is entirely coated. (You can use disposable gloves for this part or a dipping fork.)
4. Remove the truffles and place in a sieve to remove the excess cocoa powder. Do not shake the sieve, or the truffles will fall apart.
5. Plate for serving. These are best served within a couple days, but they will last in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Take them out of the fridge an hour or so before serving to ensure that they’re room temperature when eaten.