All About Chocolate
|Tao Watts is a chef and chocolatier whose chocolate company, Samaritan Xocolata, originally founded in 2005 in the Osa Peninsula, is located in the mountains of Perez Zeledon. She sources most of the organic cacao she uses from the Southern Zone. For more information: www.samaritanxocolata.com|
The tasty secret of the cacao (kah KOW) tree was discovered over 2,000 years ago in the tropical rainforests of the Americas. The ancient peoples of Central America knew its value and considered it sacred.
The first people known to have made chocolate were the ancient cultures of Mexico and Central America. These people, including the Olmec, Maya and Aztec, mixed ground cacao seeds with various seasonings to make a spicy, frothy drink, called Xocolatl, or “bitter water.” Cacao played a special role in both Mayan and Aztec royal and religious. Priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies. All of the areas that were conquered by the Aztecs that grew cacao beans were ordered to pay them as a tax, or as the Aztecs called it, a “tribute”.
Then along came Columbus!
Montezuma was said to have introduced the sacred elixir to the Spanish conquistadors who took the seeds back home to Spain, where they attempted to recreate the drink, and new recipes were invented. Eventually, the drink’s popularity spread throughout Europe. Chocolate was enjoyed as a beverage among the elite of European society, including the clergy and royalty. It is extolled for its medicinal properties as a rejuvenator of energy and an aphrodisiac.
By the mid 1700’s, throughout Europe and the Americas, confections of all kinds were being created using chocolate, including cakes and pastries, ices, bars and candies. Since that time, new technologies and innovations have changed the texture and taste of chocolate. With Industrialization came accessibility to the once-exclusive luxury treat, and the spread of cultivation to other tropical areas of the world for plantation exploitation.
There are now only a handful of fine artisan chocolate makers in Costa Rica, though cacao has enjoyed a long and revered history in this region. Cacao beans were originally used as currency in the pre-Columbian times by local Indians and continued to be a form of currency into the 1930’s. It was one of the major industries in Costa Rica before the introduction of coffee in the late 1700’s.
There are basically three different cocoa beans, and the most popular is the Forastero bean (used in 95% of chocolate), which is primarily a hearty plantation variety, which is not particularly tasty, but has a high yield. The Criollo bean, called “the flavor bean”, has the best quality chocolate but is less disease-resistant and has a lower yield, and does not flourish as well outside of the natural biodiversity of the rainforest and small farms. Most interestingly, the Trinitario bean, originating in Trinidad, is a hybrid of the Criollo and Forastero beans that produces higher-quality chocolate than the Forastero and is more disease-resistant and has higher yields than the Criollo. Thanks to CATIE in Costa Rica, many of the plantations and larger cultivating farms have this variety, which has helped make a come-back in cacao agriculture after a deadly blight of black mold destroyed much of market here in the 70’s & 80’s.
There is also a lesser known Nativa cacao, which tends to grow in the more southern reaches of the tropics, in Amazonia, and has had little exposure to the world of chocolate making though some in that region are beginning to explore its commercialization.
Over half of the weight of a cacao bean is fat…cocoa butter. In 1828, Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented a hydraulic press which removes the cocoa butter from the cacao solids, thus creating what we know now as “cocoa” or cocoa powder. This made it cheap to produce and offer to the masses, whereas before, it had been an expensive and exclusive luxury item for the elite. Chocolatiers add the cacao butter back in with the cacao solids to make fine chocolate, whereas, industrialized, mass-produced chocolate often substitutes cheaper fats, such as palm oil, lard, or coconut oil.
Cocoa butter, in addition to being used in the process of high-grade chocolate, is also used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. It has a melting temperature just below the temperature of the human body, and it goes rancid very slowly, features valued in cosmetics ingredients.
“White Chocolate” is made from cocoa butter, milk solids and sugar, and has a relatively short shelf-life and is susceptible to picking up other flavors. It contains no cacao solids, so cannot technically be called “chocolate.” But a lot of people like it and it is a great carrier for flavors for fillings, frostings and ganaches.
Recently, the fad of decorating chocolates has come about. The decals are made from cocoa butter and vegetable dyes and printed on sheets that are pressed onto the chocolate.
“Junk chocolate” has only about 15% cacao solids, (while really fine chocolate has up to 75%), with the remainder being sugar, milk solids, and cheaper solid vegetable fats substituted for pure cacao butter, which affects the cost greatly, not to mention the flavor and texture.
GOOD CHOCOLATE IS GOOD MEDICINE
Chocolate has gotten a bad rap in general, lumped in with highly sweetened and processed candy and pastries, and commonly thought to be “bad for us,”
However, according to Hervé Robert, a French doctor who published a book in 1990 called “True Therapeutics of Chocolate” and many recent scientific studies, the compounds found in cacao, caffeine, theobromine, seratonin, and Phenylethylamine, make it a tonic, mood-elevating, anti-depressive, and anti-stress agent, which enhances pleasurable activities, including sex.
The most interesting of these compounds is the alkaloid, THEOBROMINE, which is also found in tea, coffee, yerba maté, and the kola nut, guarana. Chocolate is the richest known source of this substance. What does it do? Among other things, like all alkaloids, it is a stimulant to the central nervous system, although mildly so, it is also a vasodilator and a mild diuretic.
Chocolate also boosts brain levels of serotonin. Women typically have lower serotonin levels during PMS and menstruation, which may be one reason women typically experience stronger cravings for chocolate at these times in their cycles. Low serotonin levels in those suffering from depression has led to an entire class of anti-depressive medications called serotonin-uptake inhibitors (Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft, for instance) to raise brain levels of serotonin (without having to eat chocolate).
Chocolate is a plentiful source of antioxidants. These are substances that reduce the ongoing cellular and arterial damage caused by oxidative reactions. You may have heard of a type of antioxidants called polyphenols. These are protective chemicals found in plant foods such as red wine and green tea. Chocolate, it turns out, is particularly rich in polyphenols.
By now we’ve all heard the good news about dark chocolate: its antioxidants – phenols and flavonoids – may offer protection against heart disease. In addition, cocoa butter – a saturated fat – may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels. A number of chemically active compounds in dark chocolate can improve mood and pleasure by boosting serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain. And consuming dark chocolate may slow the oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
Chocolate is purported to have high caffeine content; however, it remains lower than our other favorite sources:
Coffee: 50-175 ppm
Tea: 25-100 ppm
Cola drinks: 34+ ppm
Hot chocolate: 0-25 ppm
HOW TO EAT CHOCOLATE
By eating an ounce of dark chocolate with at least 70 percent pure cocoa a few times a week, you can enjoy its benefits without guilt. When you’re indulging, savour the flavour and texture, and try to note the effects it has on your body.
To really enjoy and appreciate chocolate, take the time to taste it. Professional chocolate tasters have developed a system for tasting chocolate that include assessing the appearance, smell, feel and taste of each piece.
- What does the chocolate feel like (smooth, thin or creamy) on the tongue?
- Uniform, grainy or uneven?
- How complex (multi-dimensional/multi-layered, simple) are the flavors?
- If it’s intense, would you describe it as bold, strong, full-bodied?
- How long do the tastes last? Are they ephemeral and quick or slow and lasting?
Other things to keep in mind:
- Body (the texture or mouth-feel),
- Sweetness(the perceived sweetness at the sides of the tongue), acidity (a sharp and tangy feeling at the tip of the tongue),
- Flavor(all the characters), and aftertaste.
The notes that we could expect depend on the type of cacao beans used in the blend. Where the cacao grew, the growing conditions, the process of fermentation, drying, roasting; every single detail has an impact on flavor. Sometimes there are only subtle differences. Choosing your favorite chocolate is a matter of individual taste, in most cases, so most importantly, enjoy yourself and find out what Chocolate you love most!
In the next issue, we will look at the entire process of turning cacao into chocolate, from cultivation to fine chocolate products, from Tree to Truffle, so to speak.