Chocolate: Food of the Gods…Literally
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
There are three things in my kitchen larder that I cannot live without; olive oil, salt…and chocolate. Ah, chocolate. As a self-proclaimed locavore, my fondness for this very non-local food is worthy of a 12-step program. I don’t feel guilty about my foreign food addiction—not even for a moment. A day in the life of me never ends without at least one sweet indulgence. So why, when asked to write about my favorite food, am I left without words? What can I write about chocolate that hasn’t already been written? Google “chocolate” and you get 122 million results—more than cheese but 15 million less than beer. Beer and cheese aside, these pages are about chocolate, and I hope you are able to glean something interesting about this oft-written-about food.
Everything Starts as a Seed
Chocolate originates from the seeds of the native South American tropical cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, which literally translates to “food of the gods.” The cacao tree is a broad-leaved evergreen that rarely grows taller than 20 feet. The tree flowers and produces fruit all year long. Yes, that means that the tree will have both flowers and fruit at the same time! The fruit is roughly a 6 inch long by 3 inch diameter pod that contains 20 to 40 seeds, or “beans,” surrounded by a thick, white pulp.
The Olmecs of the southern Gulf of Mexico were the first to cultivate the cacao tree. Around 600 BCE, they introduced cacao seeds to the Maya, who in turn introduced it to the Aztecs. Today, more than half of the world’s cacao production occurs in West Africa, particularly the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Other top producing countries include Indonesia, followed closely by Brazil.
From Seed to Chocolate
Like everything good in life, chocolate is a product of fermentation and roasting. The distinct flavor of chocolate starts when the pods are broken and the pulp begins to ferment, a process that transforms the beans as they soak up the fermenting flavors of the pulp—fruity, flowery, with notes of wine. The beans are then roasted before being cracked open to remove the bitter nibs. The nibs are ground to produce cocoa liquor. The liquor can then be pressed and pulverized into cocoa powder or pressed into cocoa butter and then conched (a process of grinding warm, liquid chocolate for hours on end to make it smooth) and cooled into the smooth, dense, sweet, milk or dark chocolate we know and love.