A SELF-TAUGHT chocolatier, Choa created these mini flourless cakes and dulce de leche. The roughness of the stones and cocoa pods are a contrast to the sheen of cocoa leaves and fine bone china. The cadenas de amor make the setting eye-catching. PHOTOS BY PJ ENRIQUEZ
River stones, jute sacks and fine bone china are unlikely combination for a table setting. But in Raquel Toquero Choa’s setup, they blend.
To this maker of Ralfe Gourmet artisan chocolates, a table setting is autobiographical and a sensory essay on the cacao.
The cacao pod nestles on a river stone, resting on a folded jute sack. Beside it is an arrangement of three stones and a crystal vase with pink cadenas de amor.
The hardwood table is strewn with fresh cacao leaves and a piece of dulce de leche and mini, flourless, vegan chocolate cakes. They are spiked with either cerveza negra or red wine with olive oil as binder.
“I usually design with a touch of nature,” says entrepreneur Choa. “This table setting was inspired by my early life in the mountains. These rocks are special. When I was a child, I would cross seven rivers with all these rocks just to go to school. I loved it.”
This oft-repeated Cinderella tale of Cebu’s “Chocolate Queen” has been narrated in TedTalks. It is the recurring theme of her table settings.
Choa loves to tell her story of cacao and how she came from an indigent family in the boondocks of Balamban, Cebu.
They subsisted on crops and corn, and she learned to cook dishes with lizards.
Breakfast was the tsokolate, freshly harvested cacao, whose pods and beans were ground using stone mortal and pestle. She mastered how the cacao was cultivated and prepared.
“Our chocolate had the spirit and it was also our life,” says Choa.
Since her family couldn’t afford milk and sugar, they drank the tsokolate as a bitter but frothy beverage that nourished them all day. She warns that adding sugar would spike up the energy and lead to “sugar crash.”
At 13, Choa would bring butchered goods to the market and ran a canteen in a factory.
Three years later, she married entrepreneur Alfred Choa, who was 18 years her senior.
A housewife, she reinforced her talent for art and cooking, and kept going back to preparing tsokolate the way she was taught by her grandmother.
When their house burned down in 2009, the enterprising Choa started making tablea. She decorated the garage, covered the billiard table and sold the tablea and other tablea products as the house was undergoing renovation. She started her chocolate buffet which served humba, pancit habhab, kalderata, pasta and rice, topped with tablea flakes.
Today she is president of Ralfe Gourmet, the holding company that makes Ralfe Chocolates.
Ralfe (with silent e) is the acronym of the first names of Raquel, Alfred who is the finance man and inventor, and Eduardo Pantino, managing partner.
Among her clients are the Tourism, Agriculture and Finance Departments that have used these Cebu chocolates as gifts at state events, including the Apec last year.
When US President Barack Obama came for a state visit in 2014, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala gave him tartufini, chocolate mango nuggets, praline with whole cacao nibs and hand-rolled truffles in a special wooden box. The US President sent a letter to Alcala, expressing his appreciation for the chocolates.
“My dream is to tell the whole world that we Filipinos know how to make chocolates,” she said.
Choa’s table settings and entertainment style are experienced in two venues. The Casa de Cacao, the former Choa residence, shows the development of cacao and how it is served as drink. The room is decorated with chocolate paintings and a chocolate world map on the ceiling.
In table setting, Choa retells the legend of Maria de Cacao who traveled at sea, passing through the rocks. The table is covered with white embroidered linen that symbolizes the sea foam. Rocks adorn the table.
In place of napkin rings, dried cocoa leaves wrap the linen napkins. Hand-rolled truffles are placed on saucers with dainty flowers. The focal point is the candelabra symbolizing fireflies at night.
At The Chocolate Chamber, guests are shown the native chocolate. People learn about the cacao and finished product through the table setting.
She starts with the familiar and rustic theme of rocks and flowers, then uses jute sacks as table runner, cacao leaves for color, flute glasses and fine bone china. The centerpiece consists of four champagne glasses holding up flourless cakes. One is called Torte de Francisco, named after Pope Francis, with olive oil from Argentina used as binder.
Choa explains that the setting symbolizes the process of making the tablea. The cacao beans are kept in jute sacks. The cacao nibs, strewn on the jute, are the fermented beans and chocolate in raw form. The finished products—tartufinis, hand-rolled truffles and floral-infused pralines—fill up flute glasses. Lending a sense of place, Cebu’s top product, the guitar, is a praline made of pure tablea.
Looking back on her past, Choa says, “Blessed are the poor. The more you have nothing, the more you are driven to develop your gift.”
The Chocolate Chamber is at 22 President Quirino St., Villa Aurora, Cebu City; tel. 0917-6287661
1. Natural details make a difference. Cocoa nibs, stones and leaves give that organic feel.
2. Make a no-fuss centerpiece. Instead of the usual floral arrangement, use glasses to hold up a pretty saucer of eye-catching dessert.
3. Use simple stemware for pralines, candies and nuts.
4. Use a fresh element from the backyard. A flower plucked from the garden brightens up a simple table setting.