Philippa Bembo, Chief Chocolatier of Cacaoette, is a maker of dreams. Her arms wave madly with an enthusiasm reflective of her Italian heritage as she beckons me up the driveway to her commercial kitchen. Situated on Sydney’s northern beaches, it’s set behind the aptly named gym, “Chocolate Box”.
Philippa’s in full chocolate making mode. I can tell by the smear of chocolate on her nose and the dark speckles on her fingers. At first, her world, a stainless steel kitchen, seems sterile but at second glance Philippa is transforming it into a miniature dream factory. Delicate purple marshmallows sit plump and enticing, trays of dark chocolate and raspberry bark sit cooling, and the rich aroma of the cocoa bean turns breathing into a hedonistic pleasure.
A large granite slab awaits as Philippa, a voluptuous woman in her forties, takes her Mason Cash bowl from the microwave and pours a sleek river of luscious brown slick over the cool surface.
Spatula in one hand, knife in the other she channels the liquid, swirling it from side to side. Her knife bangs the spatula with a tap after each push of the chocolate. I sit entranced by the soft sheen sliding across the slab. She’s seen this reaction many times.
“The first time I saw chocolate like this I just wanted to body surf through it,” says Philippa, a former model, astrologer, and counsellor. “When you have that love, that basic sensual love of chocolate, it’s so primordial and fundamental, that you recognise it in other people.”
As the chocolate glides and whirls, she tells me about the process of tempering. “There was always this aura on MasterChef where things were way more technical and complicated than I could ever do. They make a meal of tempering chocolate. There’s a lot of mystique around hand tempering but it’s really not rocket science or brain surgery. It’s very basic formulas that you just have to have.”
Even the heating temperatures are sensuous, like measurements of busty thin hipped models with the dark at 45 29 31, the milk 40 27 29 and the white 40 26 28.
As Philippa directs the chocolate back and forth, she explains that she’s combining movement and temperature control to change the crystal structure of the cocoa butter so it goes from being unstable to stable.
“I can pour chocolate into moulds and as it sets, it will shrink from the edge and have that structural integrity that comes with tempered chocolate. If I didn’t temper the chocolate, the crystal structure would be random and I’d never get it out of the mould.”
Philippa learned of the magic of chocolate on her seventh birthday when she received Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which she read “about 10,000 times.”
“I loved everything Roald Dahl did but I hated the films, both the films. I thought they were both wrong but I loved his critique on society, on childhood and inequality and all our different foibles if left unchecked but the movies were nothing like my imagination.”
I get a peek into Philippa’s imagination through the new blends and flavours she creates.
“Part of the fun is coming up with your own combinations. I don’t know if there’s anything that hasn’t been invented but I love playing with the palate. I do a beetroot and balsamic dark chocolate. It’s a classic combination in Italy but there, it’s maybe not applied in chocolate. I haven’t seen it in a chocolate before although I couldn’t guarantee that no one else did it.”
This is one of her signatures along with turmeric, pink peppercorn and white chocolate which have hints of cumin and coriander.
“I just love turmeric,” she says.
I’m thinking about the flavours too: the turmeric, the almond and sea salt, the salted caramel and the honeycomb. My mouth salivates.
Philippa points a temperature gun at the chocolate, “Twenty-nine degrees. I’ve just got to get it down two more.”
She starts her rhythmic tempering again. Click. Click. Pause. Click. Click. Pause.
Sometimes her best creations come from disasters. Her Tropical Oz began as a lemon myrtle bark but it had a revolting astringent taste. I’m not wasting all this chocolate, she thought, so she put pineapple in it and it was actually really good.
“Although I find it criminal to throw food away,” she laughs, “every now and then you have to chuck one down the toilet.”
A Coopers Limited Edition beckoned for a beer ganache but it just turned out to be really horrible. Disasters are few and far between as seen by her Facebook page crammed with comments such as: “amazing”, “delicious”, “tantalising” and “You eat it and you don’t just feel comments such as: “amazing”, “delicious”, “tantalising” and “You eat it and you don’t just feel good, you feel pure wellbeing, like deep breathing in an old growth forest.”
Philippa’s genuine love for chocolate extends beyond creation.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what is chocolate, what is cacao, and what is raw chocolate and there’s some really disingenuous, really exploitative misinformation when people are claiming they sell raw chocolate when there’s no way on earth it’s raw. It doesn’t exist. It can’t be raw. The Olmecs were the first to cultivate chocolate and they never ate the seeds. They originally only ate the pulp.”
Ruby chocolate is another swindle. ‘It’s a total con,” says Philippa. “There’s no new strain of cocoa they’ve miraculously discovered. It’s just a con for new markets. They’ve figured out how to caramelise and roast white chocolate so if you roast white chocolate it caramelizes really beautifully and you get this incredible flavour without there being any extra sugar even though there’s already sugar in it and they claim to have this new chocolate but really it’s not new chocolate it’s white chocolate, roasted and caramelized.”
Philippa’s a walking chocolate encyclopaedia. She has a Bachelors and a Masters degree in Communications but that was from another life although her learning and study continues in the chocolate world where she’s always acquiring information. Her knowledge grows through online courses, hands on courses and through travel.
“I’ve just come back from Japan where there’s an incredible focus and pride in everything they do. They’ve got very fine palates so the chocolate is like that too in a lot of ways. The food halls of the big department stores such as Isetan in Tokyo make DJs seem like Kmart or Target. When you go to Isetan food hall – it’s almost like one of the levels of Dante’s paradise, like the level of feasting and almost gluttony but it’s taken to this level that’s so beautiful that it’s almost surreal. It’s not grotesque somehow even though it’s almost overwhelming. I did my best and tried every chocolate I came across.”
That included visiting climate controlled rooms and spending $27 on four tiny chocolate truffles through to sampling potato chips dipped in chocolate under a giant chocolate block roof.
As a life-long chocaholic, Philippa buys chocolate whenever she travels. Is this one of the perks, tax deductible tastings?
“Constant access to great chocolate is one of the major benefits. If I have a weak moment I have around sixty kilograms to dive into at any one time,” she says.
“The other perk is that it’s a beautiful thing to work with. There is some fundamentally beautiful, sensual dimension to chocolate. It was called ‘Food of the Gods’ and cocoa beans were used as currency by the Aztecs who were taxed very heavily in cocoa beans. That’s why they didn’t fight to get their King back too hard from the Spanish because they felt over taxed and abused as they had to give all their cocoa beans to him. They knew it as one of those slightly transcendental human pleasures.”
She grabs a handful of freeze dried raspberries and sprinkles them over the chocolate bark. “This is what I really love. I love to witness people’s pleasure when they have a little bliss and a transcendental moment. I’m living the chocolate fantasy.” Philippa sells at local markets in Kings Cross and Frenchs Forest and through wholesalers such as Vaucluse cellars. She doesn’t want to become an empire.
She says, “In Australia there’s something missing in this culture. In France you can be an artisan and you can have your little realm and that’s considered very valid whereas in Australia it’s kind of the American way of business and brand and bigger mechanisation and factories.”
“I’m not really interested in that so much. If I were to grow I kind of like the idea of a social enterprise and getting people that are asylum seekers or women who come out of shelters and get them training and immerse them into the love of chocolate.”
Philippa’s passion is contagious. My mouth drools as I hold myself back from diving into the chocolate on the slab. When our interview comes to a close, Philippa hands me four bags of Cacaoette euphoria: passionfruit marshmallows, blackberry marshmallows, dark vegan Belgium chocolate and dark chocolate frogs. I make it to my car. Inside I close the door and check that no one is watching. I pull out a plump marshmallow and squish it in my fingers. Ah. I pop it in my mouth. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It’s subtle silky passionfruit bliss. A true transcendental moment.