What is Chocolate? How to Use Chocolate

FR: Chocolat GER: Scho(kolade)

IT: Cacao cocoa, Cioccolata, Cioccolata amara (bitter)

SP: Chocolate BOT: Theobroma cacao FAM: Sterculiaceae ILL: Plate 2, Nos. 2, 2a

The word chocolate comes from the Aztec chocolatl and theobroma means ‘food of the gods’. Chocolate was used by this people long before the Spaniards reached Mexico.

Chocolate is made from the seeds or ‘beans’ of a tree native to the lowlands of tropical Central and South America. It has been cultivated for so long that there are probably no wild trees living today. In natural conditions this tree grows to some forty feet high but, as cultivated, it is usually only fifteen to twenty-five feet. It has dark green, shiny, leathery leaves, often a foot long, and the flowers and pod-like fruits hang on short stalks directly on the trunk and large branches. The fruits are something like ribbed and pointed melons, changing from green to yellow-orange or purple-red when ripe, and at this time it looks as if the trees were decorated for Christmas. Inside the fruit is a pinkish pulp, and in this are embedded the pale purple-pink ‘beans’ arranged in a column around the central core. Today there are many hybrids and varieties and thus considerable variation on this general description.

Chocolate was unknown in Europe or Asia until the sixteenth century. It was first noticed in 1502 when Columbus on his fourth voyage found it in the cargo of an Indian trading boat in the Gulf of Honduras, and it was brought to Spain by Cortes in 1520. At this time it was important as a drink amongst the Aztecs. According to Prescott, the Emperor Montezuma required fifty jars a day.

To begin with, the Spaniards tried to keep chocolate a secret, but its use gradually spread over Europe as a luxury drink for the rich. The first chocolate house was opened in London in 1657, but high customs duty kept it outside the poor man’s reach until 1825.

Today, cocoa beans are produced in many countries having a moist tropical climate, but notably Ghana and tropical America. Flavour depends not only on variety but also on the skill in preparation. After the ripe pods are cut from the tree, they are opened and the beans and juicy pulp scooped out. The beans are then fermented, an important process as the flavour of the bean develops through this fermentation (compare with Vanilla) as does the ‘keeping quality’. Unfermented beans cannot be made into chocolate. Next, the beans are dried by being spread out in the sun and frequently turned over. It is during drying that the beans turn from purple to chocolate brown.

In this condition, the beans are shipped to the factory. There they are sorted and classed, then roasted. After roasting, they are broken into nibs, or small bits, and the brittle shell of the bean is winnowed away. The beans are then ready for grinding. This is a very long process, and the skill and thoroughness with which it is done is vital to the excellence of the finished chocolate.

The natural cocoa bean contains too much fat (cocoa butter) for a drink but too little for forming block chocolate. In 1828, a Dutchman, van Houten, discovered how to press out part of the fat. This process improved the drinking chocolate and on the other hand made it possible to make block eating chocolate, which is chocolate with sugar and some extra cocoa butter added. The indefatigable van Houten then treated his drinking chocolate with an alkali and thus developed cocoa. This darkened the chocolate and destroyed part of the flavour, but neutralized the acidity and formed traces of soap. The soap made the cocoa blend more easily with liquid. Later, in 1876, milk chocolate was invented in

Switzerland by M. Peter.

So, drinking chocolate is light in colour, has a better flavour than cocoa, is somewhat fatty and usually contains a large amount of sugar. Cocoa is darker, less sweet and fatty, easier to mix, but lacking the fine flavour of chocolate. As for block chocolates, they contain a high percentage of fat and some sugar, but bitter cooking chocolate has less than eating chocolate. It is important for the cook to understand these distinctions.

Chocolate is used mostly as a flavour in sweet dishes (cakes, confections and sauces) and as a drink. The latter includes not only drinking chocolate and cocoa, but also a liqueur, creme de cacao, made by infusing ground cocoa beans and vanilla, cloves and mace, then distilling and adding sugar.

It is usually unbearably sweet.

In Spain and Italy, chocolate is used as a flavouring with onion, garlic, tomato, oil and spices in meat dishes and even with fish and octopus. The flavour of the bitter chocolate blends well with savoury dishes, the result is interesting and a slight sweetness is both correct and necessary. In Mexico it is added to chilli powder.

Cocoa should not be confused with the coconut or with the coca (Erythroxylon coca) of South America, the leaves of which are chewed by the natives and contain cocaine.

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