Rich In Taste: Chocolate

Is there any food people react to in quite the same way we do to chocolate? It's a massive industry, raking in $13 billion a year from America alone. Today, since it's almost Easter, a holiday that battles with Valentine's Day for sales dominance, let's talk about chocolate. I'm just going to focus (albeit briefly) on dark chocolate, instead of going into the complex, delicious world of truffles, caramels and so on.

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, the seeds of the pod of the cocoa tree, and the majority of the world's chocolate is grown in hot, equatorial climates,  where temperatures don't drop lower than 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Genetic studies of the plant suggest that the cocoa plant originated in the Amazon basin and was transported throughout South and Central America. While the cocoa bean was originally found in Central America, today, most of the world's cocoa beans are grown in western Africa.

Once the seeds are harvested, they're fermented at a steady, warm temperature.  Once the fermentation is completed, the seeds are dried and roasted.  The roasted seeds are then broken down into nibs and the seeds' shells are separated out. Then the nibs are further broken down into a liquid (called cocoa liqueur), which is mixed with cocoa butter and sugar, and ground smooth. Finally, the chocolate is tempered, leaving the glossy dark chocolate we all know and love.

To get milk chocolate, the process is much the same, but milk or condensed milk is added to the liquid for the creamier, less bitter taste. White chocolate is a bit of a misnomer, as it contains no cocoa solids, but is instead made of sugar, milk and cocoa butter, which is why it tastes similar to milk chocolate, but far, far sweeter.

As a foodstuff, chocolate's been enjoyed for thousands of years. Chocolate was first enjoyed in Mesoamerica, chiefly as a drink according to archeologists. Surviving Mayan writings record a recipe for a hot chocolate drink where a paste of roasted cocoa seeds, cornmeal and chili peppers was mixed with hot water, and transferred from one vessel to another to create a thick foam. In the Aztec empire, the cocoa bean was used as a form of currency, with the Aztecs collecting cocoa beans as tribute from conquered areas. For the Mayans, the hot chocolate based drink was available for anyone who could afford it, but the Aztecs elevated it to a drink for the upper classes alone.

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Chocolate, or at least the cocoa bean, came to Europe in the 1500s, after the Spanish invasion of Mexico. The Spanish recognized the value inherent in cocoa beans, and began to ship them back to Spain, where the bitter drink was sweetened with sugar. It remained an exclusively upper-class drink for nearly three hundred years, thanks to the prohibitive expense of both the beans and refined sugar. However, in the 1800s, with the onset of the industrial revolution, mass production became viable, and solid chocolate candy became available to a wider-range of people. The rest, as they say, is history.

A good bar of chocolate is recognizable even before you taste it. The chocolate's smooth and glossy, makes that tantalizing 'snap' sound when you break a piece off to share (or just to have a bite-sized piece, since sharing chocolate can be difficult), and starts to melt if you hold it in your hand too long.

There's a growing trend towards buying artisanal chocolate. Made in small batches by dedicated chefs, it promises a higher quality of chocolate. And, just as importantly, it can promise a more ethically sound journey from cocoa bean to chocolate bar.

But, when a single bar of artisan chocolate can cost upwards of nine dollars, you want to know you're paying for quality, not just a fancy label.  So, here's some questions to ask to ensure your chocolate fix is worth every penny.

Step one would be finding out what variety of cocoa bean was used to make the chocolate: Forastero, Trinitario or Criollo.  The Forastero is the most commonly used, which has the classic chocolate flavor, but fewer of the more complex notes found in other bean varieties. The Trinitario variant is a hybrid of the common Forastero and more rarefied Criollo beans, and is often planted in the Caribbean and in South America. The final major bean type is the Criollo cocoa bean, which was the most often used in the past, but has been overshadowed over the past two hundred years by the Forastero. However, while the Criollo only accounts for about 5% of the cocoa beans grown today, it's prized for its delicate, complex flavor.

If you're really dedicated, you can follow that question up with where the bean was grown. While cocoa plants are all grown in similar climates, differences in soil composition can effect flavor. For example, beans grown in Mexico are felt to have a lighter, sweeter flavor than most, while beans from Madagascar are said to have a deeper, richer flavor.

Another question to be sure to ask is whether the bean was grown for bulk or flavor purposes. Of all the cocoa beans grown, only ten to thirty percent of the yearly yield is are classified as 'flavor', while the rest are grown for bulk. While there's nothing wrong with bulk beans, the plants they are grown for are prized for their yields, not the taste of the final product. The 'flavor' grade beans, on the other hand, have as the name suggests, a more complex flavor, which results in a more refined, better tasting bar of chocolate.

Like with wines, you can get chocolate made from a single variety of cocoa bean, or ones made with a blend.  Eagranie Yuh, author of The Chocolate Tasting Kit, explains that chocolate blends are tricky: while mixing beans can result in amazing chocolate, it also risks unforeseen complications in the chocolate making process.

Sometimes, on the label, your chocolate bar will say things like '70% cocoa'. This, however, does not mean that the bar is mainly comprised of cocoa. Usually, the percentage being measured is the percentage of cocoa products (powder and butter) to sugar.  To ensure you're getting a bar of chocolate, rather than a candy bar, flip it over to look at the ingredients listing. If the first ingredient's a form of sugar, than it's a candy bar. You want the first ingredient to be a cocoa product.

There's also the cocoa butter to consider. It's not just for hand-cream, but is a vital part of the chocolate bar. The amount of cocoa butter influences a chocolate bar's melting temperature and, in dark chocolate, how creamy it tastes, since there's no milk product to enrich the bitter flavor of the cocoa.

This doesn't mean that '70% Cocoa' on the bar's label can't help you make your purchase. The higher the cocoa to sugar percentage is, the less sweet the bar will be, all the way up to the few, rare, 100% cocoa bars, which have a rich, earthy flavor and are prized by dark chocolate connoisseurs.

It's not something we often consider, but the freshness of the chocolate has an effect on its flavor. Vancouver's East Van Roasters, the only establishment in the city to make their chocolate in house,  has been selling out, something chocolatier Merri Schwartz believes is due to the taste difference in fresh chocolate. While chocolate tastes fine for about a year after being made, she explains, within  the first three months its flavors are noticeably more vibrant, and thus, more delicious.

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