Since the Days of the Aztecs, No Food Has Incited More Passion than Chocolate
When Hernando Cortés marched into Mexico in search of gold, little did he know that the most valuable bounty today from his conquest of the Aztecs would literally grow on trees. Cocoa beans are still grown in the Yucatán as they were during the reign of Montezuma. But neither Montezuma nor Cortés would recognize what we know today as chocolate, the product of those cocoa beans. * There were no Hershey bars in 1519. No chocolate truffles. No sachertortes. And no mousse au chocolate. Just a cold, coarse and bitter drink of ground cocoa beans, chilies, cinnamon and cloves mixed with cornmeal to help emulsify the cocoa butter that floated to the top.
But it was a refreshing and fortifying drink, and it impressed the conquistadors as much as it did the Aztecs, who, legend tells us, could subsist for an entire day on just a mug or two of what they called xocolatl, meaning bitter water. The cocoa bean was so important to the Aztecs that they used it as a form of currency. More important, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of the Aztecs, was thought to have planted the first cocoa trees in southern Mexico. Thus, he was called "the giver of the drink of the gods, chocolate." (Montezuma initially mistook Cortés for the second coming of Quetzalcoatl. Big mistake.) The eighteenth-century botanist Linnaeus recognized this passion for, if not sacred devotion to, chocolate by classifying the cocoa tree as Theobroma cacao, meaning "cocoa, food of the gods."
While we don't take our fondness for chocolate to such extremes today, there is no denying that our appetite for chocolate is quite insatiable. Worldwide consumption increased 29 percent from 1990 to 1994, according to CAOBISCO, an organization that represents European confectionery and biscuit producers. Switzerland, not surprisingly, is the world's leading consumer, with 21.1 pounds per capita annually, according to 1994 figures, the most recent available from CAOBISCO. The United States, however ardent, just misses being ranked among the top 10 of chocolate-loving countries, with 10.8 pounds consumed annually per capita.
The craving for chocolate appears to be well founded. According to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, an industry trade group based in McLean, Virginia, "studies have shown that chocolate is the most craved food in the country," not just because we love its taste and the sensuous pleasure it gives, but because many of us need the serotonin in chocolate to calm our nerves. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the fats in chocolate are thought to increase the endorphins in our system and elevate our spirits.
Our mood can be heightened further when chocolate is matched with wine, particularly a nonvintage Port with which it has a definite affinity. Part of our attraction to certain red wines, such as Zinfandels, Cabernet Sauvignons and other big reds, is that they often have a chocolate component. Even cigars can have a resonance with chocolate, especially Cubans, which boast a comparable dark, earthy sweetness. That cigars should occasionally be chocolaty is not so farfetched. After all, they hail from the same terroir of the Western Hemisphere.
Even more than wine or cigars, however, cocoa beans are most like coffee beans. Unlike the coffee bean, which was discovered in Ethiopia, the cocoa tree is said to have its origins in the Amazon and Orinoco (Venezuela) river basins. Both cocoa and coffee beans are now produced in South and Central America and the West Indies. Cocoa beans are also grown in New Guinea, Malaysia, Samoa and equatorial Africa. The Ivory Coast of West Africa and Indonesia are the world's leading producers.
The cocoa tree flourishes in tropical conditions, growing to a height of approximately 60 feet. To make harvesting more manageable, however, trees are kept closer to 20 feet. The fruit of the tree, which grows on the trunks as well as the branches, is contained in bright yellow, orange and red pods about the size of elongated melons or squashes. These pods contain litchi-like seeds, or beans, that are shaped like almonds. Like coffee, which is made from the thoroughbred arabica bean and the coarser robusta bean, cocoa beans are divided into two principal levels of quality. The criollo is the superior bean, with a fruity flavor and fine acidity. The forastero is the robusta of cocoa beans, high-yielding but less refined in flavor. In addition, there is a third bean, the trinitario, which is the result of a cross between the forastero and the criollo.
When the cocoa pods are harvested, the fleshy fruit, which is naturally high in sugar, is allowed to ferment, thereby developing flavor, aroma and color. The now light-brown beans (which are called green beans) are dried, sorted and packed in 50-kilogram (110-pound) bags for shipment to chocolate factories, mostly in the United States and Europe. (Germany is the world's largest processor of chocolate.)
The cocoa beans are then roasted in large rotary cylinders at between 250 and 350 degrees, very much like coffee beans, to bring out the maximum chocolate flavor. This is a crucial step. Overroasting can turn good beans bitter. Conversely, inferior beans might be masked by a heavier roast, as is the case with coffee. The temperature and length of roasting time will vary depending on the manufacturers' specifications and the quality of the beans.
The roasting process cracks the shells, revealing the "nibs," the meat of the cocoa beans. In Chocolate: The Food of the Gods (Chronicle Books, 1993), Chantal Coady notes that while some shells are pressed for a kind of low-class cocoa butter, others are used for mulch, which sounds like a dream come true for chocoholic gardeners. The roasted and shelled beans are ground by passing them through a series of large grinding stones or heavy steel disks. The heat of the grinding causes the nibs to liquefy into cocoa mass, or chocolate liquor. The latter has nothing to do with alcohol; it is simply chocolate in a liquid state. This chocolate liquor is chocolate in its most elemental form, or what we call unsweetened or baking chocolate. When the chocolate is further processed by removing the cocoa butter or by adding ingredients such as milk, vanilla or sugar, the liquor becomes semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, sweet chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate or cocoa powder.
These various types of chocolate are further refined by putting them through huge rollers that reduce the size of their particles. The chocolate is then conched. Conching, so named for the shell-like shape of the containers originally used, is a process in which large blades whip through the heated chocolate liquor for anywhere from 12 hours to several days to produce different textured chocolate. This kneading process not only smooths the texture of the chocolate but allows volatile acids and moisture to evaporate. It is during this process that more cocoa butter may be added, as well as emulsifiers such as lecithin, which create an even smoother texture.
For practical purposes, there are six kinds of chocolate. Government regulations do not control all six, and regulations in the United States do not always coincide with the standards and terminology used in Europe. However, European chocolate sold in the United States must adhere to U.S. standards. The varieties are:
Unsweetened or Bitter Chocolate
This is the essence of chocolate--just the chocolate liquor, with no sugar added. It may, however, contain some vanilla. According to the U.S. Standard of Identity, federal regulations established by the Food and Drug Administration, unsweetened chocolate must contain a minimum of 50 percent of cocoa butter but no more than 60 percent. Since chocolate liquor contains between 50 and 60 percent of cocoa butter after processing, some companies add or subtract this ingredient for their final product.
Unsweetened or bitter chocolate, which should not be confused with bittersweet chocolate, is also known as baking chocolate. Because there isn't enough sugar to make it palatable for eating out of hand, unsweetened chocolate is used almost exclusively for confections and desserts. Unsweetened chocolate generally comes in eight individually wrapped one-ounce portions. In a recent issue of Cook's Illustrated magazine, Nestlé Unsweetened Baking Chocolate Bars took top honors in a taste test, followed by Guittard, Merckens, Ghirardelli, Van Leer and Baker's, in descending order of preference.
Bittersweet and Semisweet Chocolate
This is the broadest category of chocolate, and the one that is subject to the most confusion, beginning with the names themselves. Despite the difference in the two names, the chocolates are interchangeable, because there is no standard that differentiates them. That said, chocolates labeled bittersweet generally have a stronger, more pronounced chocolate flavor that results from a higher concentration of chocolate liquor and a lower sugar content. Regardless of what it is called, each product must contain at least 35 percent of chocolate liquor. This category is the darkest of the eating chocolates and therefore has the richest chocolate flavor.
Bittersweet or semisweet chocolate serves a dual purpose in the United States. It is eaten out of hand but is also used in many desserts and confections--a change from earlier days, when most desserts and confections were made of unsweetened chocolate.
As the name implies, this is a sweeter chocolate, with a less intense chocolate flavor. It requires only 15 percent of chocolate liquor and must contain less than 12 percent of milk solids.
This is America's favorite eating chocolate, the kind found in candy bars and other chocolate candies. It contains at least 12 percent of milk solids and 10 percent of chocolate liquor. The chocolate flavor is mellow, somewhat caramelized and tempered by a high dairy content.
The U.S. Standard of Identity traditionally has not recognized this as chocolate because it contains no chocolate solids other than cocoa butter; hence its color. When white chocolate is produced in the United States, it is called confectionery coating. Europeans prefer the term white chocolate, a designation that the United States is considering for approval and one that selected manufacturers are being allowed to use on a trial basis. In addition to cocoa butter, white chocolate contains sugar, butterfat, milk solids, lecithin and flavorings. Quality white chocolate should have an ivory color, which indicates a high percentage of cocoa butter. When the cocoa butter is replaced by cheaper fats, such as vegetable fats, the color becomes progressively whiter and the quality of the flavor is reduced.
When most of the cocoa butter has been removed from the chocolate liquor under hydraulic pressure, a cake is formed. This cake is then ground into cocoa powder or breakfast cocoa, which contains between 10 and 22 percent of butterfat. Most cocoa is simply labeled as cocoa (not breakfast cocoa) or medium-fat cocoa. The chocolate flavor in cocoa powder can vary from mild to strong. Similarly, colors can range from light tan to red to black. Dutched chocolate has been treated with an alkalizing agent to modify flavor and to make the powder more easily absorbed in liquid. The Dutching process may also alter color, making the product almost black in extreme cases.
The quality of chocolate in any of these categories can vary dramatically, depending on the quality of the beans, how they are handled and what, if any, additives are used. Cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla may be added, along with a host of ingredients that can often detract from the quality. For example, vegetable or animal fats may replace some of the cocoa butter, and artificial vanilla, or vanillin, may be used in place of real vanilla.
The best way to find out whether the chocolate you purchase contains any of these ingredients is to check the label carefully. Chocolate that does not meet the above definitions must include a caveat on the label. For example, semisweet chocolate that contains fat other than cocoa butter must say "and vegetable fat coating." Author Coady also offers this suggestion: "The first point to look for is the cocoa content, which means the combined total of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. This should be at least 50 percent if it is plain chocolate, or 30 percent if it is milk chocolate. If sugar is high on the contents list, warning bells should be set off, because it constitutes the balance of the ingredients."
For chocoholics, the simple fact is that the higher the quality, the more you want to eat, which makes chocolate very much like almost anything else we ingest. While I was sitting in La Maison du Chocolat, Manhattan's premier chocolate shop and one of the best chocolatiers in the country, the manager, Alex Yezril, heaped chocolate after chocolate on my plate. (La Maison du Chocolat, the only U.S. outpost of the famous French shop, specializes in ganache, which combines chocolate and cream. Most of its cocoa beans come from Venezuela.) Each chocolate, from truffles to pralines to ganaches, was delicious and satisfying. But after eating a dozen or so I was nowhere near being sated. In fact, I could have eaten quite a bit more. When I mentioned this to Yezril, he smiled knowingly. "That's because you're eating chocolate with a high concentration of cocoa, not a lot of fat and only just enough sugar," he says. "We have people who come in almost every day and buy 12 to 14 pieces and eat them all in one sitting right outside on the bench."
Chocolate with too much fat, Yezril says, can coat the gullet, like plaque in the arteries. You won't get a heart attack, but you will feel as if you ate too much Crisco. A surfeit of sugar can also ruin good chocolate by masking the chocolate flavor. In some cases that's what inferior chocolate makers want to do. The key to creating delicious chocolate is balance. There should be just enough sugar to sweeten the chocolate, pleasantly. And just enough fat to give you an appropriately sensuous taste sensation. Several of the chocolates I tasted at La Maison du Chocolat also had a subtle fruitiness, which Yezril describes as acidity. With milk chocolate, he notes, one should again taste a balance, this time of butter, milk and chocolate, "but always chocolate first." Yezril likens the taste of good milk chocolate to cajeta, the Mexican caramelized milk used in desserts.
Tasting chocolate is very much like tasting wine. Start with the lightest first, then work your way up to the darkest. Put a small amount into your mouth and let it melt, then swirl it around with your tongue. Don't just chew and swallow. Unlike wine tasting, there is no need to suck in air. Or spit.
Yezril says that there has been a marked increase in the percentage of dark chocolate eaten at his shop since it opened five and a half years ago. He compares this development with novice wine drinkers moving up from lower priced varietals to premium wines as their palate becomes more sophisticated. Increased exposure to European confections through travel also has something to do with the trend, although according to Chocolate, An Illustrated History, by Marcia and Frederic Morton (Crown, 1986), Godiva chocolates imported from Belgium in the 1960s "are credited with awakening America's taste for luxury chocolate." Europeans typically consume a higher percentage of dark chocolate than do Americans.
Susan Smith, of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, says that the change in American chocolate eating habits is largely a phenomenon of the East and West coasts. "The last survey we did in 1994 showed that 75 to 80 percent of Americans preferred milk chocolate and 20 to 25 favored dark. That hasn't changed a lot, maybe a few percentage points, since our previous study in the mid-1980s," she says. "The biggest difference in eating habits was by region. Dark chocolate is more popular on the East and West coasts. Adults in the middle of the country and kids like milk chocolate."
There are a number of top brand names of chocolate, although some companies do better with certain types of chocolate than others. Professionals such as Alice Medrich often prefer the French-produced Valrhona. When Medrich, one of America's leading authorities on chocolate, wrote Cocolat, Extraordinary Chocolate Desserts (Warner Books, 1990), she recommended Callebaut, Ghirardelli Semisweet and Lindt, in addition to Valrhona, in the bittersweet or semisweet category. For milk chocolate, she liked Callebaut, Tobler, Lindt and Valrhona. But today Medrich is less dogmatic about what properties distinguish the best chocolate.
"What I'm finding more and more is we should treat chocolate like wine. Everyone has their preference, so it's hard for anyone to tell you what's good and bad," she says. "I can tell you it should have a high cocoa-butter count and chocolate-liquor content. That it should be smooth and have hard snap when you bite it. But those don't mean anything if you don't like the chocolate."
This spring Medrich discovered just how strong people's chocolate preferences are when she conducted an experiment in Chicago at the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. She gave a roomful of people two chocolates, Valrhona Le Noir Gastronomique semisweet and a semisweet by Van Leer. "The room split down the middle, and vehemently," she says. "Half loved the assertive, acid and winy flavors of the Valrhona. Half loved the toasted coffee, rich and comfy flavor of the Van Leer." When Medrich threw a third chocolate into the mix, a Guittard French Vanilla, the room was divided into thirds. The reason for the strong preferences, according to Medrich, is that "unlike whiskey and tobacco, chocolate is not an acquired taste. Chocolate is always something we liked as kids." *
Sam Gugino is a food and wine writer based in New York City.
Since our inaugural issue in 1992, Cigar Aficionado has tested more than 1,300 cigars. We have rated practically every size and brand available on the premium market. But this is our first foray into distinctive, rich and flavorful chocolate cigars.
A panel of 10 self-proclaimed "chocoholics" from the staffs of Cigar Aficionado and Marvin Shanken's Cigar Insider, our monthly newsletter, blind-tasted 14 cigars from chocolate manufacturers around the United States. What we found is that the chocolate cigar market is no different from the premium cigar market. There are outstanding, good and mediocre chocolate cigars. They come in various shapes and sizes. Some look exquisite, some are improperly constructed and others don't even look like cigars. Only four cigars rated 90 or above; one was deemed a classic.
The cigars were either purchased at the chocolatier or sent directly from the manufacturer. They were kept in ideal refrigerated conditions and were tasted within a day after they were received.
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