If you say coffee or wine, good point. Like coffee, chocolate’s quality is dictated by the type of
bean used and the skill of the roaster. Like grapes,
varieties of cocoa beans can be mixed to achieve certain flavor profiles, nuances can be coaxed out during processing and their character can vary from
year to year, enough so that exacting followers make
their annual choices based not on manufacturer but
on bean. Yet chocolate transcends these other foods:
It’s what you’ll find on your pillow in a fine hotel, a
gift that carries a special message (and sometimes
strings), a decadent treat, the preferred gesture of
Valentine’s Day (on which Americans will buy some
36 million boxes of chocolate!) and much more.
Here’s everything you ever wanted to know
about chocolate, but didn’t dare ask.
Revered by ancients
First, a quick history lesson. The Mayans and
possibly others before them in present-day Central
America were the first known people to crush the
beans from the cacao tree and make a beverage—
bitter and probably cold, without the modern additions of sugar and milk. We know this from ancient
Mayan writings, which refer to the drink as “food of
the gods,” and images of cocoa pods carved into the
walls of their elaborate stone temples.
Cocoa beans first came to Europe via Christopher
Columbus, who brought a handful to Spain from his
last voyage to the Caribbean islands, in 1502, presenting them to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (who
reportedly dismissed them as a curiosity). Two
decades later, the Spanish explorer Cortés was greeted
by the Aztecs with cups of a dark drink, chocolatl. The
hospitality wasn’t returned: The Spanish conquered
the Aztecs, but recognized cocoa’s value and began
new plantations in the region.
The Spanish kept chocolate a secret for about a
century, until monks who were assigned the
task of processing cocoa reportedly told
their French counterparts about the
drink. From there, chocolate, now served
with cinnamon, vanilla and other spices,
spread quickly to England and the rest of
Europe. With industrialization, chocolate
makers invented new ways to grind and press
the beans, and prices dropped.
One last date is notable: In 1849, an English
company introduced the first solid eating chocolate.
The world hasn’t been the same since.
From tree to treat
It’s hard to envision how something so rich and
refined can come from such an odd-looking tree,
but that’s the case with chocolate. Cacao trees grow
only in rain forests in a narrow equatorial band
around the world. African countries (namely Ghana
and the Ivory Coast) account for 70 percent of the
world’s production, followed by Indonesia and
Brazil. There are three main varieties, each with a
unique flavor: criollo, relatively rare and considered
very high quality; forastero, the most common vari-
ety; and trinitario, a hybrid of the other two.
Cultivated, the trees reach about 25
feet; every six months hard-shelled
pods sprout directly from the trunks
and branches. They look like small
footballs and are hacked off the
trees by hand.
Each pod contains 20 to 50
cocoa beans, protected in a creamy
pulp. The beans are scooped from the
pods, placed in shallow boxes and covered with
banana leaves to ferment for several days. Then
comes drying: The beans are spread out in the sun or
blown with hot air over several days. They are then
bagged and ready for market.
The process continues at a manufacturing plant
(most likely in the Netherlands or Germany) in several steps that you don’t see in Charlie and the
Chocolate Factory: The beans are cleaned, blended to
create a particular flavor, roasted, cooled and cracked
to remove the shells, leaving, ultimately, “nibs”—
potent pieces of beans that are the basis of all things
chocolate. The pieces are then ground by large
rollers; the friction generates enough heat to melt the
cocoa butter in the nibs and liquefy them into
What happens next depends on what’s being
made. For cocoa powder, used in drinks, baking, etc.,
the liquor is pressed to remove cocoa butter (which
makes up about half of the cocoa bean), leaving a dry
cake. For eating chocolate, various ingredients are
mixed into the dry cake—cocoa butter, sugar and
milk, for example, for milk chocolate—then pressed
into a smooth paste, “conched” (kneaded with other
ingredients to make the chocolate smooth and
creamy) and finally “tempered,” or carefully cooled
into a solid form, whether it be a candy bar or a big
block of chocolate for a chocolatier.
That’s the process, but how it’s executed plays a
huge role in the final taste, says Carole Bloom
( www.carolebloom.com), a chocolate expert, author
and spokeswoman for the Chocolate Manufacturers
“There are so many things involved that influence quality,” says Bloom, a Costco member in
Carlsbad, California. “One is the quality of the
beans—how they’re grown and how they’re fermented. Another is how or if the beans are blended,
just like with wines. There’s a big area of high-end
chocolate now that is focusing on single origin or on
She adds, “And there’s how long the beans are
roasted, and at what temperature. And how long the
chocolate is conched. If you take two chocolate bars,
one a low end and one a high end, you can definitely
tell the difference.”
IRIDIO PHOTOGRAPH Y
A mature cacao tree can
yield about 50 pods twice a
year. Each pod holds about 40
almond-size seeds, enough to
make about 10 milk chocolate
bars or four dark chocolate bars.
It is believed that the first
chocolate bar for eating was
made by Englishman Joseph S. Fry
in 1849, who called his creation
Chocolat Délicieux à Manger
(“delicious-to-eat chocolate”). His
new chocolate was made possible with the invention of a press
to extract cocoa butter from
roasted beans. And milk chocolate
was invented in 1876 by a Swiss
chocolatier, Daniel Peter.
Chocolate as a popular
candy got a huge boost from
World War I. Soldiers were
given chunks of chocolate in
their rations; when they returned
home, they wanted more. In the
Gulf War, Hershey made a heat-resistent Desert Bar.
Unsweetened chocolate, used in baking,
is basically pure chocolate, with
no sugar or milk added.
Bittersweet chocolate is the
darkest of eating chocolate. It
has at least 35 percent chocolate liquor. Milk chocolate has
at least 10 percent chocolate
liquor. Don’t be fooled by a
name: dark chocolate still has
sugar and milk added. The
higher the cocoa percentage,
the more intense the flavor.
Good or bad for you?
Since its first imbibers, chocolate has been hailed
as a magic potion of sorts for a variety of ills, from
anemia and asthma to hangovers and hemorrhoids.