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A little history of chocolate

We’d all like to think that chocolate just fell from the skies like nectar from the gods but that’s not so.

It did have a little ways to go to be considered sweet to the taste. Here is a little background on the evolution of chocolate.

Evolution of chocolate

Mesoamerica, from the halls of Montezuma

Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations used to give the cacao tree an important place in society. The Mayans and the Aztecs used to use cocoa beans as currency. Crushed cocoa beans were used to make a bitter liquid called xocoatl. Only royalty and the best military warriors could gain access to the drink.

Chocolate, namely cocoa beans have been used for thousands of years. As early as 250 A.D., ancient civilizations of Mexico and South America used the cocoa bean. It was used as currency.

The trees grew under shade cover on the rain forest floor. Over centuries, natives cultivated the plant and moved it to their villages where each could grow their own. Maybe that’s where the phrase “money growing on trees” came from. Literally, they could grow their own currency. That was one importance of the bean.

Secondly, the cocoa bean was used as a drink. The beans were fermented, roasted and then ground into a paste. Mixed with water, spices and sometimes cornmeal, the drink was quite popular. The commoner got to drink it during celebrations, but the chocolate drink, called xocoatl was reserved mostly for the upper echelons of society – the Emperor (of course), soldiers and priests.

Because the drink contained almost 100% cocoa solids, the effects that we have discovered today were quite prominent back then. The drink increases stamina, endurance, mood and was used as an aphrodisiac by Montezuma.

European Enlightenment

The civilizations of this region enjoyed hundreds of years of good fortune with the cocoa bean, hidden from the outside world. It wasn’t until the 16th century when European explorers discovered the region that cocoa and chocolate was introduced to the rest of the world.

The European explorers found the chocolate drink quite bitter. They did, however, notice the magnificent effects that the food had on the natives and their culture. They were allowed to carry beans back to Europe. They used their sweeteners like honey to add a more flavorful taste to the drink. When sugar was imported to Spain and other European countries, they used that to flavor their chocolate drinks, in search of the perfect taste.

The drink took off in Europe. It was the newest thing and caught the eye of royalty and the priesthood alike.

The Europeans had to tinker with their newfound creation so they began to manufacture it themselves. They developed the first press to remove the cocoa butter from the paste and leave them with powder. The powder was mixed with other liquids to create a better drink. They also found that by adding in some of the cocoa butter they could create a molded bar from the cocoa beans – bar chocolate.

This was less than 200 years ago. Now, we reap the fruits of their ingenuity. Since then, chocolate has enjoyed a rich and tasty place in the world of confections.

How Chocolate is Made

The chocolate that we enjoy today starts out looking like nothing remotely appetizing. It all begins south of the equator in large pods that grow on the cacao tree. Ready for a field trip? Let’s go.

Chocolate was not known to the classic western civilization. IIt wasn’t until European settlers came to South America and Africa that the cocoa bean made its way to the modern world. Even though that has a few hundred years ago, the process of prepping the cocoa bean for chocolate manufacturing remains pretty much the same.

The beans is how it all begins

Cacao trees produce large fruit pods on the trunk of the tree. The pods are harvested with machetes. When you crack them open, you’ll find about fifty or more seeds within a sweet pulp. The pulp and the cocoa beans are removed and placed in buckets for fermentation.

Depending on the type of cacao tree and the manufacturer, the process can take a week or longer. Fermentation gives the beans some semblance of the chocolate taste we like. Once the fermentation process is complete, the cocoa beans are spread out so that they can dry naturally in the sun.

It is the dried beans that are shipped to chocolate manufacturers all over the world. Once there, the beans are roasted, much like coffee beans. Roasting intensifies the final taste of the chocolate.

The next step to chocolate

When the beans are ready, the shells are then removed. What you are left with is the essence of the bean – cocoa butter and other chocolate solids. A machine grounds the shelled beans into a paste that is referred to as chocolate liquor even though it is not a liquid or contains alcohol. From here, it is a magical process, if you will, that varies from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Even though some of the ingredients are trade secrets, the process is quite similar. The chocolate paste goes through a machine that removes the cocoa butter. This leaves you with a powdery cocoa. Substances like cocoa butter (re-added), sugar, milk, oil and the like are added to reconstitute the powder into chocolate.

The last step in chocolate making is conching. The chocolate is mixed in a large machine until it is the consistency the manufacturer likes. After, the chocolate is poured into molds, allowed to cool, wrapped up and then packaged for shipment.

Who knew that chocolate didn’t just grow that way on the vine? Oh well, at least the manufacturers take the time to turn Montezuma’s elixir into our sweet obsession.

Specialty Chocolates

Just like other things in life, all chocolates aren’t created equal. There is chocolate and then there is…chocolate! Specialty chocolates cost a bit more than traditional brands and are worth the wait.

Chocolate versus Chocolate

Well, we know that all chocolate starts off the same way. The beans come from large cacao pods that grow on trees found in South American rainforests and in Africa. The pods are large and grow directly from the trunk of the tree.

There are three main types of cacao trees used for chocolate – Forastero, Trinitario and Criollo. The Criollo tree is mostly cultivated in South America and is probably the tree that explorers found when they landed in that region. The Forastero tree is found in Africa mostly. The Trinitario tree is a hybrid of the Forastero and the Criollo tree. It is typically grown in South America, Central America and Asia.

Now, you may be wondering what the difference is. The Forastero tree grows fast and is responsible for most of the cocoa that is produced around the world. The Criollo doesn’t produce as many cocoa beans in a year and so they are considered a higher quality bean. The Trinitario has the taste of the Criollo tree but the disease resistance of the Forastero.

Tender Loving Care

It is important to start with a good bean. That’s not to say that all cocoa beans don’t have the potential to be good, but there are many factors – type of tree, climate, temperature and soil. Choosing cocoa beans from trees that are grown in their natural surroundings is the goal of specialty chocolate makers. Many trees have been adapted to grow in other climates closer to the manufacturers.

Specialty chocolate makers create their confections from a single type of bean. The most highly prized bean is that of the Criollo tree but single-bean chocolates can be created from the other trees as well. These chocolates can be found all around the world from both European and American chocolatiers.

So, what’s the secret? It varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Suffice it to say, many use simpler processes in their factories, even mixing some ingredients by hand. They produce less chocolate per year than more popular chocolate companies but that is due to the laborious technique.

These are not just dark chocolates either. Specialty chocolates can also be milk chocolate varieties. They distinguish themselves in the types of beans used, producing single bean chocolate and the other ingredients added. Some even roast their own beans so that they control the flavor of their chocolate right from the beginning.

So, want to taste something unique? Try a specialty chocolate today!

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