Theobroma, the botanical name for cocoa, means “food of the gods”. F&HE explores this most heavenly of foods
The predilection for chocolate is a universal phenomenon. World consumption of chocolate is a whopping 2,8 million tons per year. Whether you’re addicted or not, there can be no denying its allure. Cocoa beans are said to have originated in the Amazon more than 4 000 years ago, but when Christopher Columbus stumbled across them in 1502 he ignored them. Two decades later Hernán Cortés found the Aztec emperor drinking a liquid so prestigious (crushed cocoa beans with water and spices) it was served in golden goblets that were discarded after just one use. On his return to Spain in 1528 he took some of the beans back.
When the Spanish added water and cane sugar and heated the brew, it became a favourite drink of the nobility. For almost a century, Spain enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the cocoa bean market, but its popularity ultimately spread, and in the early 1700s chocolate houses sprang up in London. The industrial revolution brought the price down to within the public’s reach. In 1828 Conrad van Houten, a Dutch chemist, first extracted cocoa butter and made cocoa powder.
Two decades later cocoa butter and sugar were added to a paste of ground beans and chocolate became more than just a drink. Chocolate’s popularity reached heady heights when new machines were developed by Rodolphe Lindt to conche (stir) liquid chocolate to improve its smoothness. Cocoa beans grow within the “cocoa belt”, a 20-degree strip on either side of the equator. The pods take about six months to mature and are harvested by hand. Once cut open, the fleshy white seeds are fermented (usually for a week covered in banana leaves) before being dried in the sun.
The beans are shipped to mostly European factories where they are shattered into nibs. Heat and pressure are used to produce a thick paste called chocolate liquor. It is subjected to high pressure to extract cocoa butter; the residual mass is ground to make cocoa powder. There are three varieties of cocoa trees: forastero, criollo and trinitario. Strong and bitter forastero beans, grown in West Africa and South America, account for 85 percent of the world’s production. Criollo and trinitario beans are considered fine-flavour beans and make up the rest of the world’s production. Criollo beans produce a fine, sweet cocoa, while trinitario beans have a mild aroma with a light, fresh citrus note.
Consumers are becoming more aware of the origin of ingredients. In keeping with international trends, the chocolate industry is taking steps to support fair trade practices. Programmes are being introduced to help poor cocoa farming communities, which include certifying farming practices to ensure responsible labour codes and education. Figures published by the UK Fairtrade Foundation suggested that 70 percent of UK consumers recognised the Fairtrade mark in 2008, compared with 57 percent in 2007. Consumers in SA are not as conscious of fair trade practices as their European and American counterparts, but they share a globally growing awareness about the importance of organic goods.
Awareness of responsibly produced chocolate has also seen an increase in the demand for organic chocolate. Organic chocolate producer Green & Black’s Maya Gold chocolate was the first Fairtrade product to go on sale in Britain 11 years ago. Consumers have not been the only ones to pick up on the trend – Cadbury Schweppes purchased Green & Black’s in 2005. Exclusive chocolate is now being produced as “single estate”, meaning that the beans used are from the same estate. The Holy Grail for serious chocoholics is vintage chocolate mostly found in Europe in limited amounts. Some of these include Ampamakia 64 percent (Madagascar 2006 vintage), Palmira 64 percent (Venezuela 2006 vintage) and Gran Couva 64 percent (Trinidad 2006 vintage).
The chocolate man South African-born Russell Hind, previously manager of The Chocolate Society shop in London, has a deep passion for and knowledge of chocolate. He also worked for one of the top chocolate brands in the world, Valrhona, while living in London. His knowledge led to television and radio appearances, which included two shoots with super chef Jamie Oliver.
Tell us about your chocolate history.
I used to work at a small sweet company in Durban years ago. I wanted to get into something similar and found a chocolate company setting up its own store in the UK. I was fortunate to work for Valrhona, the finest chocolate manufacturers in France. I have been involved in a variety of areas for 10 years: making chocolate, retail, teaching, workshops, TV and radio. I also did two shoots with Jamie Oliver, advising him on which chocolate to use in which dish.
What do you love most about chocolate?
I love what it does to people. It makes them weak at the knees; it makes them smile! It’s a fun business.
What is the biggest chocolate no-no?
Chocolate must never go into the fridge, unless it is sealed. A fridge is full of moisture, which causes “blooming”, resulting in chocolate turning white.
How important are cocoa percentages?
Looking for the higher percentage in chocolate is a start to finding a good chocolate. But there is also more to chocolate, including how it is produced and manufactured.
How should it be stored?
It’s pretty easy to look after. Put it in a cupboard in an airtight container and it is happy. Chocolate melts at body temperature, so it’s got to be very hot to make it melt! Its two worst enemies are heat and moisture. The only time you put chocolate in the fridge is when you have a truffle and fresh ingredients like cream; then you put it into an airtight container in the fridge.
Is chocolate good for you?
Yes, as long as it is good quality chocolate. It contains vitamins and polyphenols. The ingredients in chocolate cause a similar chemical reaction as falling in love.
Is it fattening?
Good chocolate is not fattening.
What are your tips for cooking with chocolate?
Don’t let water get into the chocolate, for example in the bain-marie when you are melting it. It’s easier to melt chocolate in a microwave: break it into small pieces and heat for a minute. Stop and stir. Repeat this process for three minutes and it should be ready to work with. If it’s still the same after three bursts in the microwave don’t heat it again – stir until it melts. Chocolate should never be too hot.
What about white chocolate?
It has no cocoa. In the chocolate business cocoa fat is a waste product and it’s very clever to market it as white chocolate! It is more fattening. People debate as to whether it is chocolate or not
DIY chocolate tasting
• Buy a variety of chocolates with different cocoa percentages – it is also interesting to include organic examples – and group those that should be tasted together. Start by tasting those with the lowest cocoa percentages (the sweetest) first.
• Tasting begins before you even put the chocolate into your mouth. If you’re not doing a blind tasting then read the label and look for a high cocoa percentage and low sugar content. Check to see the percentage of cocoa butter or vegetable fat (a cheap alternative). A good chocolate will contain real vanilla whereas vanillin is a cheap substitute.
• Check that the chocolate has a sheen, as this means it has been tempered correctly. When you break a piece you should be rewarded with a “snap” and a smooth, clean break. Cheaper chocolate breaks with a rough edge and you can sometimes see granules or bubbles. Good quality chocolate takes five days to conche, a process that makes it smooth. If it hasn’t been conched properly, you can feel granules when you put it in your mouth.
• Put the chocolate in your mouth and play with it. Feel for the texture or granules on your tongue and note whether it is sweet or bitter. “When you put a bad piece of chocolate in your mouth it is very fatty and sticks like peanut butter. With good chocolate, you don’t have to fight with it in your mouth because it melts at body temperature,” says chocolate expert Russell Hind.
The following terminology may help to describe the chocolate:
Spicy – liquorice, vanilla Roasted – roasted almonds, caramelised sugar, caramel, coffee, cocoa, tea, tobacco
Fruity – red berries, tropical fruit, raisins, plums, bananas
Flowery – jasmine, rose, orange blossom
Nutty – all nuts
Miscellaneous – hay, wood, mushrooms, moss, fresh grass, leather, beeswax, honey, bread, cream, butter
• Once you have finished, be sure to consume whatever chocolate is left … if any!
Trend analyst Dylan Cherry of International Trend Information (ITI) in Durban looks at chocolate’s current global journey of discovery. “It is amazing when you look at the heritage of chocolate: it’s a luxury item and yet chocolatiers are not running out of ways to make the chocolate experience ever more luxurious and unique.
Chocolate houses are pushing the boundaries of this luxury experience by not only increasing the percentage of cocoa but, like coffee and wine, carefully selecting the origins of the cocoa. By using exquisite flavours only available in season, they follow the popular food trend of serving seasonal produce. Organic and fair trade chocolate is now popular and follows the green trend. One of the current destinations for haute couture chocolate is Artisan du Chocolat in London, which is responsible for Japanese-inspired boxes of beautifully patterned pieces with exquisite infusions of spices and herbs.
Some of the combinations include traditional flavours such as orange, ginger and rose, but other flavours may surprise you, such as banana and thyme, black cardamom, chestnut tree honey, sea-salted caramel or even tobacco. Food has long been an inspiration for design and decor. Think of the classic flavour combinations and you’ll find they make great colour harmonies too. For example, dark chocolate and orange is a classic flavour combination that also creates a monochromatic colour harmony. Combining chocolate and orange also gives a nod to African inspiration, considered one of Summer 2010’s key trends. Similar colour harmonies with chocolate are golden caramel, cream and milk chocolate, which make for a very rich and decadent decor experience.”