THE DISH: Chocolate class fun, informative

A recent evening spent making chocolate from scratch at Coconama was nothing short of transformative.

That word is often bandied about, I know, as a hyperbolic way of categorizing some new experience that probably doesn’t warrant the description, but I mean it here in its truest sense.

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When I walked into Coconama one recent weeknight with my chocolate aficionado friend Tanya, I had a certain vague understanding of the world’s favourite sweet indulgence. When I left, my conceptions were completely transformed and I can say with certainty that I will never look at, taste, or smell chocolate the same way again.

I have so much to say about Coconama, a delightful and truly unique new addition to the North Shore, that I could likely write a series of articles about them; like their chocolates, the Coconama experience is multi-layered, nuanced and not easily summed up using the conventional vernacular we apply to foodstuffs.

I will fail to aptly describe, for instance, the sensation of tasting the confectioner’s Numb Green Tea truffle, so named for its combination of white chocolate, matcha, and complex sansho pepper, an ingredient sourced directly from Japan by co-owner and head chocolatier Takanori “Taka” Chiwata.

The round dairy notes of the truffle’s white chocolate give way to a subtle and earthy, faintly vegetal green tea flavour before being completely obliterated, in a sudden and wholly unanticipated way, by the incomparable sansho component, which begins its merciless assault on the palate with a pleasant citrusy advance that steadily increases in potency before morphing into a full-on mouth-numbing, sinus-clearing, perfumed blitzkrieg of untameable pepper flavour that makes your tongue wonder if it’s being tickled or tortured. Amazing stuff.

Coconama is approaching its fifth year of operation. It was headquartered in Richmond for more than four years before relocating to the North Shore this summer. Chiwata and partner Kayoko Hamamoto both worked for a large corporate confectioner in Japan, he as a product developer, she as a researcher.

Moved by Canada’s beauty and a distinct sense that they were mere cogs in the industrial machine back home in Japan, removed in their jobs from even the faintest possibility of direct engagement with customers, the duo packed their bags and brought their passion for chocolate to B.C. I’m glad they did, and I would suggest that after a visit, you will be too.

The phrase “Connect people with chocolate” is boldly emblazoned on Coconama’s door. This is an apt motto for their operation, which is located down on the getting-ever-cooler-by-the-day strip of East First Street that is also home to Finch & Barley, Well Fed and The Juicery. You see, Coconama is not just a retailer of wonderfully innovative chocolates, they are chocolate educators too. In fact, their commercial space is 90 per cent production floor/learning centre and only 10 per cent retail. Chiwata and Hamamoto run classes for the public several times each week, imparting knowledge about chocolate to participants.

Tanya and I signed up for a hands-on chocolate-making class, well-priced at $40 per participant for two hours of intensive instruction, and proceeded to create our own mini dark chocolate bars from scratch.

We began by roasting raw Brazilian cocoa beans, then cooled them, shucked them (preserving the toasty shells for use in an extraordinary tea later in the evening), ground them by mortar and pestle (a deltoid-taxing, but invigorating 30-minute affair), mixed the resulting paste with cocoa butter, raw cane sugar and cocoa butter powder, continued to emulsify the mixture, eventually turning it out into delicate molds, and letting it set in the cooler while Hamamoto walked us through some additional chocolate-making instruction.

At the end of it all, we were able to tuck into the 70 per cent cacao bars we had created and even brought a few home to show off to our respective families.

The class, which has a capacity for eight students, is a fascinating glimpse into the world of the chocolatier, and is one of the most enjoyable culinary instruction experiences I’ve had.

Coconama’s owners are patient, humble, affable, and knowledgeable, and are clearly very passionate about their chosen field. This passion is reflected in the wildly inventive truffles that form the basis of Coconama’s retail operation, which, in addition to the small counter of chocolates available for purchase at their commercial space, is supported by their participation in numerous farmers markets throughout the Lower Mainland.

I chose a selection of 10 truffle cups (small plastic ramekins that contain about 10 cubed truffles, priced at $4.50 each, on average) to take home to become better acquainted with Coconama’s signature style. The most remarkable flavours from my selection (which barely scratched the surface of the more than 30 available) included:
Hojicha - earthy, toasty-roasted green tea with dark chocolate;  
Ginger - sharp, fragrant and spicy ginger root with dark chocolate;
Hot Chili - dark chocolate with a fiery red chili heat;
Sake - (possibly my favourite of the lot) smooth, silken chocolate with a potent dose of sake kasu, the finely pulped, intensely aromatic lees leftover from rice wine production;
Rich coffee - as the name suggests, sort of like an unsweetened mocha;
Lemon Basil - milky, rich white chocolate with refreshing herbs;
Coconama Salad - truly inspired, if a touch academic, infusions of white chocolate with kale, beetroot, yam, tomato and avocado.

As we head into the North Shore’s rainy season and seek indoor refuge, I can think of very few more enjoyable ways to while away the hours than expanding the mind and palate at Coconama.

Our two-hour chocolate-making class for two was $80. Ten ramekins of truffles were an additional $42. Coconama is located at 264 East First St. coconama.com. 604-770-1200

Chris Dagenais served as a manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. A self-described wine fanatic, he earned his sommelier diploma in 2001. He can be reached via email at hungryontheshore@gmail.com.

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