Horizon at Sandy Point

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More than a hill of beans

What others consider dull unimaginative work often comforts me. There are times when I enjoy manual labour - cleaning a house; sweeping, dusting, scrubbing floors and even "doing the windows." Many Saturday mornings in my teen years I hid under beds, my nose in a book, running the noisy vacuum cleaner over and over the same couple square feet of carpet so no one would come to find me. Other days  I speed-cleaned windows by sponging water all over the glass leaving dusty streaks. Oh how I dreaded the bathroom with so many tiles! But with repetition, routine, my mother's sharp eyes and sharper tongue, I learned to apply elbow grease to all household tasks. I learned to appreciate predictability and precision. And I knew when it was a job well done, even though I had to do it again in a week's time.

We lived on a farm, so these lessons also came from caring for eggs, chickens, pigs, ducks, goats and crops.  By the time I was in high school, I knew almost everything there was to know about chicken eggs - shape, weight, color, shell thickness, freshness - from routine daily chores. After school, my job was to pick up eggs from the hens nests. Fresh eggs have a fine dusty film that should not be removed. Soiled eggs were put aside to be cleaned gently with a steel wool, and washed only if necessary. Then, the eggs were placed on a slow conveyor belt and sorted by weight as the heaviest tipped first, the lightest last. Cracked eggs went to the house for breakfast or baking.

Hatching eggs were imported from Atlanta. Their journey ended in the anteroom to the incubators where they were arranged on wooden frames - with wire mesh bases - that held 120 eggs balanced on points. These eggs were incubated at a specific temperature, and turned on a rotating wheel for 17 days before being rolled into larger trays for the chicks to pick their way out of the shells in the last four days. That was the system over 40 years ago - it may be modernized now, reducing the need for the labour of small and careful hands. My feet would ache and my arms tire from hours of moving eggs mechanically from crate to frame, but my head was free to wander far from the warehouse cum hatchery with its hard terrazzo floor and lofty galvanized iron roof.

The real question then, which came first the chicken or the egg? Cultural belief systems say the chicken. Evolution and biology say the egg. On the farm, they co-existed happily - chickens, ducks, guinea fowls, all happily laying, sitting and reproducing themselves!

Education was a key my parents gave me. They were pleased when we chose university degrees. But learning to use your brain was not meant to be the antidote to manual labour. Rather these were counterpoints, hands and hearts, brain and mindfulness, human energy in control of machines. My mother tended a garden to the end. My father wanted us to be self-employed. He believed in the purposefulness of work, of trial and error and try again, of standing on your own, of eating what you had grown and having enough to share and invest.

The hatchery was sold shortly after the coup in 1990. The farm is now a gated community of imposing air-conditioned houses, the fruit trees and my mother's flower beds long gone. But the comfort to be found in small repeated tasks lives on. These days, it is found in the chocolatier's kitchen where the processing starts with hundred pound burlap bags of "danced" cocoa beans. The beans have been shelled from the pods, fermented, polished on the estate. In the kitchen, they are sorted, roasted, winnowed and ground to produce pure chocolate liquor. The liquor is blended with sugar in a stone grinding machine, tempered with heat, and folded with flavor or shaped into chocolate bars.

The sorting task. Spread two scoops of beans on the sorting tray. Remove stones or any foreign objects. Remove un-fit beans. It's easy to detect moldy beans by smell, but some whitened shells may not be mould. Those that have been hollowed out by insects have practically no weight. Charred black beans are likely over-fermented and already "cooked." Some very flat seeds may be too small to have a bean. One can be a fascist and remove everything but the plump sienna-coloured beans. One can be liberal and allow all but the stones and chaff and rotten shells. Surely, it's not necessary to be so judgmental of a bean! Let it go through the oven, let every bean become nibs.

So you have a hill of reviewed beans. It's time for the roast. The rotary drum runs the beans back and forth in the convection heat. Roast slow and low, or hot and fast. The chocolatier is testing for the release of different flavors. Cool down. Run the beans through the winnower which cracks and vacuums the shell while collecting pure cacao nibs that are good as gold.

To make fine chocolate, the nibs are liquidized. They are crushed and strained, and transformed to pure  cacao liquor fragrant with the flavors of earth and fruit and atmosphere. Who enjoys good chocolate and does not appreciate the fine details of process knows pleasure only halfway. Chocolate - all of it - deserves more than the moment's consideration. How do we learn to taste the sweat of small fingers in the grocery brand chocolate bars, or smell it in the aroma of morning coffee?

Is there difference, I wonder, between the hours spent crating eggs, the hours spent sitting behind this computer spinning tales, or the hours spent presiding over a hill of beans?

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