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.
Madison is home to three taste-worthy chocolatiers: Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier, Candinas Chocolatier and TerraSource Gourmet Chocolates. These local chocolate makers are striving to compete in an industry producing skilled chocolatiers as fast as the demand for quality, artisan chocolates is growing.
Gail Ambrosius is one of ten children who grew up on a dairy farm in Seymour, Wisconsin, and now lives in Madison. Her love of chocolate began after a high school French club field trip to Paris at the age of 17. After her career as a cartographer for the State of Wisconsin, Ambrosius set out to turn her dream of owning a chocolate shop into reality.
The result is an assortment of rich, self-indulgent dark chocolate truffles that make me weak in the knees, and it appears I am not the only one—the Food Network recently named Ambrosius’s chocolates the “Best Little Box of Chocolates” in the nation.
A purist at heart, Ambrosius is a dark chocolate devotee. She uses the highest quality single-origin chocolate and infuses natural, fresh flavors such as jasmine, lemongrass, cayenne and curry, to name a few. She also incorporates local and regional ingredients like fresh blueberries and mint in a variety of seasonal offerings.
In contrast to Ambrosius’s hand rolled chocolates, Markus Candinas of Candinas Chocolatier has dedicated much of his life to perfecting the molded chocolate. Sophistication paired with innovations in chocolatemaking equipment, and matched with equal parts artistry and a passion for fine ingredients lends itself to an amazingly rich and delicate chocolate.
Candinas has been making fine molded chocolates for 16 years. He opened his Verona production facility in 1994 and his Madison Capital Square retail location in 2007. Says Candinas, “I am passionate about the things I like to eat.” Spending six years honing his craft in Switzerland—three years as an apprentice followed by three years working in a chocolate confectionary—Candinas is serious about his craft, and his dedication has paid off. Candinas has been named an “Outstanding Midwest Chocolatier” by the Chicago Sun Times and one of “20 Favorite Artisan Chocolatiers” by Chocolatier Magazine.
A recent addition to the Madison chocolate scene is Josie Pradella and her TerraSource Gourmet Chocolates. Pradella has been making fine chocolates for three years. A self-taught chocolate maker, she produces an array of vegan chocolates (including a handful of dairy-, gluten- and soy-free chocolates) flavored with fruit juices, purees and dried fruit. Pradella sources all of her fruit from Wisconsin growers, including Carandale Farm, Blue Skies Berry Farm, Sai Vong Farm, Future Fruit Farm, and from a handful of friends who grow organic rhubarb and pears. TerraSource chocolates can be purchased online at her website. Be sure to ask about her newest product line, Shares Squares chocolates— one dollar of every package sold goes to support local fundraising groups or a solar cooker project for Haitian women.
Chocolate Sourcing—Giving Farmers Their Due
We as eaters can make smart decisions about purchasing chocolate. Fair Trade Certification ensures not only fair prices for farmers but also safe and just working conditions. Fair Trade also aims to invest in community development, promote environmental sustainability and eliminate unnecessary middlemen in the trade process. Look and ask for Fair Trade chocolate when you have the urge to indulge, or find a local chocolate maker who strives to source fairly traded and sustainably raised cacao beans.
Sources: Harold McGee’s fascinating On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of The Kitchen (2004), also known as my kitchen bible. Additionally, Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion (2001).
Your Local Chocolate Makers
Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier
2086 Atwood Ave., Madison
Factory and Retail Store: 2435 Old PB, Verona
Retail Boutique: 11 West Main St., Madison
TerraSource Gourmet Chocolates