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Food of the Gods

Since the Days of the Aztecs, No Food Has Incited More Passion than Chocolate
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

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.


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