History & Culture of Chocolate

History

London’s nobility first discovered chocolate in 1650 as an exotic, invigorating drink. The Aztecs taught the Spanish that Chocolate is a health tonic. Cacao contains a mood enhancer and has flavonoids, (which promote healthy cellular tissue) and naturally occurring antioxidants that have a role in cancer prevention. They support the body’s circulatory and central nervous system. Cacao is also a good source of vitamins and minerals, and its fat (cacao butter) is easily digestible.

maya-chocolate1000 BC – Cocoa trees grow wild in the Amazon and appear in etchings on classic Mayan pottery.

later the precious dried beans are used as currency among the Mayans and the Aztecs, and the rich make an exotic drink from them – often flavored with vanilla and chili.

In 1765 chocolate arrives in the American colonies and in 1894, Pennsylvania’s Hershey factory make the first mass-produced affordable chocolate.

In 1925, cocoa beans are traded for the first time as a commodity on the world market.
In the 1980′s the world sees higher quality chocolate bars appear on markets around the world.

The Present

There is a quiet revolution in much of the world with the discovery of a new kind of chocolate and a worldwide rise in the number of chocolate makers (the makers of chocolate from beans to bars) and likewise the number of chocolatiers, artisans who primarily create bars and bonbons (truffles, caramels, and other filled chocolates).

The giant chocolate manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe now have competition from small artisan chocolate makers who scour the territory for a growing number of cacao farmers located 20 degrees north and south of the Equator throughout much of the world. These chocolate makers are finding access to often remote places to foster relationships with the cacao growers, communities, and cooperatives. Often they buy the harvest for several years and provide technical support in the farming of the cacao beans. In most cases, the fermented and dried beans are shipped to the U.S. or Europe and made into chocolate.

There is a competitive search for the finest varieties of beans. The beans are the rare and pricy criollos, the often fruity trinitario, and the robust Forastero and their many hybrids. Some of these beans will be blended for certain flavor characteristics, while others will be single origin (cacao from one region) or estate grown (from one farm).

The face of chocolate is changing with a growing number of small and innovative chocolatiers. Mostly fine and artisan chocolate can be found in boutiques/ delicatessens and more upscale supermarkets. Visiting a local chocolatier’s shop will likely provide you with a tasting of different confections, and the sales clerk/owner will likely know the overall ingredients in the bonbons and bars as they are the specialty of the business. The bars will have a cocoa percentage listed, the exterior of the bar will tell the customer about the origin of the beans, and the ingredients will be all natural. The chocolate will have natural cocoa butter with no other fat added. You will experience no waxy mouth feel, but instead feel the silky texture of a well-tempered shiny chocolate that melts easily in your hand or your mouth. You will find many different flavors and realize that you find flavor notes that you might call fruity, floral, smoky, nutty or that inspire other descriptions. The terroir (soil, temperature, weather and farming method) will determine the flavors, and you will realize that many of the descriptions are parallel to adjectives used in the wine industry.

The Future

Feeding a customer’s son a small bite of pure dark 75% cocoa content chocolate, I see his eyes sparkle as he signals me to give him a bit more. With his mother’s approval, I feed the toddler another tiny bite. One year later he has added “cocoa” to my name, and his eyes twinkle and a smile forms with pure expectation when he sees me. His parents have supported my effort to make him a lover of fine chocolate. He is a child who likes dark flavorful chocolate and finds that most candies are too sweet. As a small shopkeeper/chocolatier, I love when customers enter the store with the statement: “I love chocolate”. We have entered into a sacred union, and I am allowed to offer the customer’s unique creations or a taste of something new to them. There are also the visits where a “foodie” makes suggestions, and the next day I add orange zest to the basil truffle to add another layer of flavor for a new taste experience. Chocolate has become gourmet food along with coffee, olives, wine, cheese and teas.

Chocolate Tasting – Discover a symphony of flavors

Visit a few specialty chocolate shops, a department store with fine chocolate, an upscale supermarket, or a trusted and well-stocked local food co-op. Study the shelves and talk to the store employee who knows the most about chocolate. Pick out chocolate bars (or bonbons) from various places in the world and bars from single estate (cacao beans from one farm), single origin (beans from one region), or single variety (cacao beans from one variety).

Look for different cacao percentages and sweetness, and try to compare chocolates that have about the same sweetness factor.

Link the taste/smell to your environment and find words to describe your experience.

Unwrap your chocolate and look at the chocolate. Is the surface smooth and shiny? (Is the chocolate’s cocoa butter properly crystallized and in good temper?). The color will be determined by type of bean, roasting time, milk added, etc.

Touch and Break/Cut the chocolate and discover the snap to find whether the texture is velvety or grainy. A smooth texture will usually have a greater aroma. Note that spices, nibs, fruits or nuts might have been added for complimentary flavors and texture.

Smell your chocolate and let the aroma linger for a moment. Taste is 80 to 90% smell. Formulate words that come to your mind. Repeat this process to savor this experience. Be aware that we are inundated with artificial smells, and that you can train your senses to be more attuned to food smells. You are seeking smells that remind you of fruits, flowers, and spices.

Place a bite of chocolate in your mouth and let the chocolate coat your tongue. Savor the beginning, middle, and after taste of your experience. Tasting good chocolate will make the flavors linger for up to several minutes. Look for the sweetness, acidity, astringency, bitterness/spiciness and saltiness. You are looking for a balance of these components. In some of the newer chocolates the chocolatier has added spices and this flavor is usually detected after the sweetness is found. This can be a fun and new experience. What does your mouth feel?

What are your associations with what you taste? Try to put words to what you taste. You can think of words in the categories of flowery, spicy, nutty, fruity, roasted, woodland and other flavors.

What to drink during a chocolate tasting?

Drinking anything but water will interfere somewhat with your flavor experience. Admittedly, though, it is pleasurable to have a good glass of wine with chocolate, and for some coffee or tea. Tasting chocolate is about pleasure and enjoyment and sharing a moment with friends.

Bon Appétit!
Mimi

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