From 'dirty' to gourmet: a chocolatier’s journey
MANILA, Philippines - “Every Filipino has a story to tell about tablea,” Raquel Choa begins.
Her story? “I’ve been making tablea since I was 7 years old.”
Raquel Choa is the lady behind Ralfe Gourmet, an artisan chocolate boutique based in Cebu that focuses on creating quality chocolate from locally-sourced cacao pods.
Raquel and her husband Alfred have managed to supply tablea — those flat discs typically made for chocolate drinks — to prestigious hotels in Cebu and elsewhere in the Philippines.
In the beginning, it was quite a challenge for them. International chefs shied away from the product.
“They would call our chocolate ‘dirty chocolate,’” Raquel shares.
The perception that led to the moniker came from how the beans are processed in cottage industries.
When harvested as cacao pods, the beans for roasting are enveloped in a pulpy substance or mucilage. Farmers segregate the mucilage from the bean by literally sucking on the bean, which also rids the bean of considerable flavor.
The cacao beans Raquel sources are processed through fermentation; it breaks down the mucilage in a more hygienic manner.
Because only about a 3rd of the weight of harvested cacao pods can be processed into commercially viable chocolate, traditional tablea is usually made with fillers, such as the cacao pod husk, jackfruit seeds, sweet potato or peanuts.
This results in the grainy consistency of sikwate or traditional Filipino drinking chocolate.
Ralfe Gourmet's tablea is made from 100% cacao beans, so it has none of the grainy texture caused by insoluble fillers. But the product wasn’t always well-received.
“Some friends thought I was lying,” Raquel recalls in Bisaya. Her friends thought the smooth feel of their tablea was too good to be true. “One friend said, ‘that’s not real tablea!’”
Raquel owes the art of chocolate-making to her grandmother, whom she grew up with in the municipality of Balamban, Cebu. It was a time of simplicity and hardship – Raquel had to cross 7 streams just to be able to get to school.
But the art of tablea and sikwate-making was a fond memory for her.
From this memory evolved a passion that has turned into an advocacy. “I want people to stop asking for chocolate from their balikbayan friends,” Raquel says.
She considers the cacao bean a “hidden treasure” and a largely underrated crop for its lack of supply in the Philippines.
In its raw form, chocolate is the richest antioxidant food in the world.
Raquel, together with her husband Alfred and their cacao technician and marketing manager Edu Pantino, often goes on educational drives in underprivileged communities to teach them the benefits of eating cacao.
She is also investing in a cacao plantation in her hometown.
“I want the Filipino to benefit first,” Raquel shares. “That’s my promise to the farmers.”
From tablea, Raquel has diversified Ralfe Gourmet's product lineup into other chocolate confections: quick-melting chocolate discs (slipped into a tumbler of hot water or milk and shaken, not stirred), truffles, cookies and more.
What would Raquel’s grandmother say about her tablea story?
“Malipay jud akong lola sa akong gibuhat.” (My grandmother would be thrilled at what I’m doing.) - Rappler.com
Ralfe Gourmet is in Topaz street, Casals Village, Mabolo, Cebu. For more information, call 0917-6287661 or email email@example.com.