Pierre and the Chocolate Factory: A Visit to Pierre Marcolini
We finally secured a full visit including a few minutes with the man himself, most likely in between meetings (the daily torture in most companies, especially multinational ones!). I thought he looked remarkably like Gordon Ramsay, similar age, height, hairdo and clothing. We walked through the different stages of the process, what they call their “bean-to-bar” approach, covering every single step of production. And they go a little further, as they also take care of the sales and distribution, and want to make sure the products offer the same quality in every corner of the world.
We saw the process from the very beginning until the final boxed product. They carry out ever step themselves, roasting the cocoa beans and even the nuts that they use to create their pralines—hazelnuts from Italy’s Piedmont, almonds, I believe from Spain, pistachios from Iran. We tasted some of the pralines, including the hazelnut Nutella-like spread that is going to be launched as a separate product, “but with no palm oil or any such ingredients in it.” Imagine what that would be like on a thin piece of toasted sourdough bread…
I was particularly interested in the origin of the cocoa beans, as they’re sourced from different plantations around the world. We got to chew raw beans (there’s around 40 of them in a cocoa pod) from Java and Cameroon, and they each had a different taste. So I started asking questions, “Do they taste differently if the soils are different?” and “does the climate affect taste?” Of course they do, and of course it does. “It’s very much like for wine—location matters. Each plantation has different characteristics and the flavors of each bean is very distinct. That’s why we never mix beans of different origins.”
As they carry out every step of the production in house, they have total control of what happens. “Every detail counts and every step is very important. We have machines, but the process is very manual. We can make some chocolates a little bit faster, the ones that are not painted or written on—some have the origin of the cocoa written on them. For those, the process is less automated and thus slower.” The whole thing seemed quite manual to me and required quite a lot of people.
“A great percentage of the employees here at Pierre Marcolini are chocolatiers, people trained in the making fine chocolate. Not the staff involved in mechanical operations that require no specific chocolate-making skills, but those working on the actual production. It’s hard to keep young chocolatiers with us, because many of these people come here for experience for their CV, and once they have it they want to set up their own businesses. It’s a natural process, of course.”