Reto Marzari studiously stirs the beginnings of a flamenco ganache. “Yummy”, he says with a childlike smile. After nearly half a century in the business, he still gets excited at the sight of the beautifully creamy potion bubbling in his pot.
Nicknamed the “Santa Claus of Chocolate” by his customers (even sans beard, the resemblance is uncanny), Chef Reto is at first glance a stereotypical Swiss chocolatier. Chocolate is, of course, very serious stuff in Switzerland, and Reto doesn’t take the subject lightly. He has the training, he has the expertise, but he operates with a decidedly schoolboyish charm. I like this about him. And Reto – with his crisp, brass-buttoned chef’s jacket and perfectly tilted, puffy toque – not only looks the part… he’s lived it.
He started his career in 1963 as an apprentice to the owner of the famous Confiserie Bachmann in Luzern, Switzerland. Following jobs in Oban, Scotland and Copenhagen, Denmark, his search for warmer weather resulted in stints in Manila, Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
In 1996, Reto brought his chocolate prowess to Singapore. If you’ve ever bitten into a morsel from well-known local shops Chocz or Sins, you’ve probably tasted one of his creations. Last year, he started his own company, Chocolate Atelier, where would-be chocolatiers sign up to learn the secrets behind his artisanal dark truffles and roasted hazelnut bruchschoggi.
That’s where I am today, about to embark on the two-day Chocolate Extravaganza class. Others, I’m told, typically ease in with the basic chocolate-making class, but for someone who doesn’t know a cacao from a kidney bean, the long class is in order.
I watch as Reto carefully measures out dairy cream, trimoline (a honey-like form of sugar) and chilli flakes to the exact gram. As he works, he asks, “So, how did the cake turn out?”
A voice behind me calls out, “It disappeared!”
“Yes, yes”, he nods, never looking up from his stirring.
This eager student, I later learn, is on her third chocolate class at Chocolate Atelier. She says Reto’s classes are as addictive as his best-selling cocoa-dusted almonds.
Reto soon announces that we’ll be working with Carma chocolate today. “What about Valrhona?” asks a disappointed voice from the class. Apparently, Reto isn’t a “huge fan” of the stuff, a revelation that pulls a collective gasp from the class. He turns the fire off, putters over to his cooled storage closet, and emerges with two different bags of chocolate.
“Taste for yourself.”
So we do, and he’s right. The Carma is less bitter and much smoother on the palate.
It’s the first of many taste tests of the day. Once the flamenco ganache has cooled, we each get a little sample. Heavenly.
Throughout the class, Reto rattles off chocolate info and stats with the authority of a collegiate professor. He talks about how to avoid the dreaded “water bloom”, the difference between a praline and a truffle and why you should handle chocolate at home as carefully as you would handle meat; that is, temperatures matter. The thrice-returning cake-baking student leans over to me at one point and whispers: “He’s like a walking encyclopaedia.”
As we dive into the next recipe – vanilla champagne truffles – a student in the class commits a cardinal sin. She asks about compound chocolate. Reto, of course, only uses couverture, a high quality chocolate that relies on cocoa butter for its rich and creamy flavour. Compound chocolate, on the other hand, has added vegetable fat to raise its melting point (which explains why those cheap grocery store chocolates absolutely refuse to melt in your mouth) and doesn’t need to be tempered.
That’s why experts like Chef Reto are in high demand – tempering couverture is no simple feat. Heat it too high, and you’ll destroy the chocolate’s crystalline structure; drop the temperature too low, and it won’t completely melt. To temper it correctly, you must bring the chocolate to 45°C (temperatures vary if you use milk or white chocolate), then cool it to 28°C (through a water bath, beating it on a marble slab or by adding additional chocolate and continuously stirring), before heating it back to 32°C. Watch this process once, and you’ll understand why shops are charging $6 for one minuscule bite.
Luckily, Reto’s going rate is around half that. I fill a bag with white chocolate truffles before I leave. He drops in a few of the habit-forming cocoa-dusted almonds; “You’ll be back!” – he prophesises.
Filled with racks and bins of cookies, cakes and chocolates in every flavour you can imagine – coffee grappa pralines are coming soon – Chocolate Atelier is a veritable chocolate addict’s dream. Before I go, I have to ask – does Reto ever throw open the display counter after a bad day and just let loose? “It’s happened,” he smiles.
Interested in a class?
All classes are held at Chocolate Atelier at 253 Joo Chiat Road. For the monthly schedule of chocolate, bread, cake and cookie classes, call 6348 1686 or visit www.chocolate-atelier.com.
Does whitish powder on chocolate mean that it’s spoiled?
No, the presence of this powder indicates that the chocolate was exposed to high temperatures during storage or transportation. Heat brings the cocoa butter to the surface, where it re-solidifies as it cools.