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MANILA, Philippines – At The Chocolate Chamber in Cebu City, the chocolate dictates how things play out.
The doors to their air-conditioned main store are kept shut as much as possible to keep the room cool and preserve their delicate chocolates, which melt easily because they don’t contain sugar or milk.
As thirst-inducing as their chocolate-tasting menu is, water is only served at room temperature. Their chocolate is high in fat, explained The Chocolate Chamber’s managing partner Ed Pantino. Cold water will produce a different mouthfeel.
In most places, chocolate is something that is mindlessly consumed, but at The Chocolate Chamber, it is savored and even revered – a reflection of founder Raquel Choa’s own relationship with chocolate.
Known as the “chocolate queen” of Cebu, Raquel tells her story with a theatrical cadence, as if she’s center stage, the star of a play.
She traces her journey with chocolate back to when she was 7 years old. According to Raquel, she would cross seven rivers to go from her home in Balamban, Cebu, to her school.
Every morning, before leaving to make the tiring journey, her mother would make her drink a cup of sikwate – Cebu’s richer, purer take on hot chocolate.
“I cannot leave the house without drinking a cup of sikwate…. I thought there was magic. It’s magical for me, my relationship with cacao,” Raquel told media at a chocolate tasting held for a Philippine Airlines and Tourism Promotions Board familiarization tour.
At the time, her parents had separated, and to comfort the young Raquel, her grandmother would tell her about the legend of Maria Cacao, a fairy who lived in the forest, harvested cacao, and traveled on a golden ship to sell her crops around the world.
With the legend tucked away in her memory, Raquel moved to San Pedro, Laguna, with her reunited parents when she was 13. While there, she worked odd jobs – doing laundry, cleaning houses, collecting garbage – to make ends meet.
At 16, she got married and started a family, drinking sikwate every time she went into labor (she has eight kids), as her mother prescribed.
It was only when she was 32 and a housewife that she discovered that cacao was the main ingredient of chocolate. This sparked her curiosity about chocolate again, and years later, in 2011, she opened her first chocolate business, Ralfe Gourmet.
Raquel gave a vague answer when asked about how she learned to harvest cacao and make chocolate. She said she never went to school nor had formal training, but rather, she developed her chocolate knowledge “with all my senses.”
Over 10 years since opening her first chocolate business, Raquel has become a chocolate authority. Like her inspiration Maria Cacao, Raquel has brought her chocolate all over the world, hosting cacao-making and chocolate-tasting workshops, and even telling her story with full theatrics at a TedX talk in Chiang Mai.
The chocolate queen’s penchant for drama is mirrored in the “Chocolate Stop” – a curated chocolate tasting at The Chocolate Chamber.
The Chocolate Stop begins with a welcome drink: cold sikwate blended with hibiscus. It’s both decadent and surprisingly refreshing, with a distinct floral aftertaste.
After that first taste, diners are served a succession of tablea creations, all chosen by Raquel herself: whole cacao nib praline, tartufini (cacao nib covered in caramel and chocolate), a choco-mango nugget (dried mango, sweetened chocolate, and sea salt – her tribute to Cebu).
To end it all, there’s the Chocolate SRS or sweet rice surprise – sticky rice with hints of ginger and coconut milk, filled with mango jam, and coated with a tablea-chocolate ganache. As if that wasn’t rich enough, it’s served with a cup of premium sikwate, which is meant to be poured over the rice ball.
It is a lot of chocolate for one afternoon, but it will do you well to trust in the chocolate queen’s plan. When you go home with your stomach heavy, mouth thick, and head light from all that cacao, you’ll know that you’ve not just tasted chocolate but also experienced it like you never have before.
“I’m an artist by heart,” Raquel said. “Chocolate is my medium.” – Rappler.com