Like almost every aspect of the discretionary food marketplace, the roving spotlight of attention and global commerce has lighted upon chocolate. Not unlike the way that coffee went from donut companion to centerpiece, chocolate has matured from waxy drug-store candy "treat" into a full blown lifestyle option. Aficionados regularly discuss varietals, single origin products, and celebrity (minor, though they may be) producers.
But What is Chocolate?
Chocolate as we know it is really nothing more than super-duper finely ground, fermented, roasted beans (seeds) of the cocao tree suspended in cocoa butter (fat) with sugar, and sometimes flavor like vanilla or milk.
That statement, accurate though it may be, is akin to saying that wine is nothing more than fermented grape juice. The road from pod to bar is a long one with twists and turns that will leave you scratching your head wondering how anyone ever found the way. And the truth is, of course, that nobody figured it out...it took many people quite a long time.
The cocao tree, a shade-loving amazon forest floor native, produces very unpromising, mini-football-size-and-shape pods that look, smell, and taste like they have little to offer in the way of good eats. There are mainly two types of cocao trees fueling the chocolate trade: criollo, and forastero. Criollo, though finicky and relatively lean producers, yield the most complex flavors in the finished product. Think of them as the Pinot Noir of the cocao world.
Forastero trees, on the other hand, produce the most reliable and bountiful crops. They're the Chardonnay of the chocolate world: they grow in a variety of conditions quite well, and they don't have that much flavor on their own. Hershey, Nestle, Cadbury, and Mars buy this cocao from plantations in West Africa, eventually making its way into your favorite vending machine.
After harvesting, pods are literally gutted of their pulp and seed contents which are piled into heaps. Soon, wild yeast ferments the natural sugars in the pulp into alcohol. Alcohol level rises causing the yeast to die off, and setting the table for bacteria which then consumes the alcohol, converting it into lactic acid. The lactic acid is transformed yet again by another sort of bacteria into acetic acid--a miraculous chain of events that roughly follows the pattern that grape juice does as it first turns into wine and then finally to vinegar.
Fermentation awakens flavor pre-cursors dormant in the pulp and seeds by exposing them to the alcohol and acid. Without fermentation, chocolate simply isn't possible. Squiring this process to success requires skill and attention, and it also has to be stopped at the right point. Arresting unwanted microbial activity is accomplished by spreading out the transformed beans in the sun to dry.
From Beans to Bar
Dry, fermented cocao beans must be roasted and their casings discarded. This produces 'nib,' which is really the first product along the way that begins to taste like actual chocolate. Nib is ground and refined into a paste called chocolate liquor. At this stage, producers can go in two directions: they can extract away the cocoa butter, leaving behind cocoa powder, or they can add cocoa butter to create a richer paste that can be transformed into the chocolate we know and love.
To make chocolate, the enriched chocolate liquor is ground even further in a machine called a conch (because it looked, in its first incarnation, roughly like the shell of the same name). The conching process tumbles the chocolate liquor much the same way that concrete gets tumbled in a cement truck. Ball bearings in the conch pulverize the beans into particles so tiny that our tongue can no longer detect them. The heat created from the friction of all that tumbling further transforms the chocolate liquor by encouraging unsavory volatile organic compounds to waft away.
Unlike industrial producers, or even small makers in Belgium and Germany, there's a whole crop of producers in South America who are growing their own pods and manufacturing the finished chocolate all in one place. This is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that's great for chocolate lovers. Although the europeans developed what we now think of as chocolate, the confection, small producers have gone to chocolate school and they're doing it for themselves.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I'll talk about what to taste for, who the players are, and where to lay your paws on a bar or two.