By Patricia Alesse
The history of chocolate dates back over 1500 years to the ancient Mayan and Aztec Indians who gave it its name, Theobroma cacao, meaning “Food of the Gods.” The beans of this small tree indigenous to the forests of Central and South America were crushed to make a beverage which was high in fat, unpalatable, difficult to digest, and expensive and was therefore only available to the more wealthy higher classes especially priests, warriors and others of high rank. However it grew in popularity and by the 16th century, the beans were used as money in trade.
After the Spanish discovered the New World, they introduced it in Trinidad in 1525. Cocoa as a plant was introduced in other tropical areas and plantations began in the Philippines, the Caribbean and by the 19th century in West Africa.
Throughout its use other starchy ingredients were added to reduce the portion of fat and increase the flavor, but the breakthrough came in the nineteenth century when Van Houten in Holland invented a process to reduce the fat content which produced a much more palatable beverage and also produced the cocoa butter which gave rise to the making of eating chocolate which is composed of cocoa nibs (the crushed bits), sugar, flavorings, and additional cocoa butter. The addition of milk by Daniel Peter in 1876 to produce the first milk chocolate was another significant development. The way in which the cocoa beans are crushed and combined with the sugar, milk and flavorings can be performed in many ways and each chocolate manufacturer has his own secret formula resulting in a variety of flavors and qualities in this most loved confection.
The basic process involves harvesting the pods, cutting them open, scraping the pulp and beans out and storing them covered (to retain the heat) in vats for fermenting. The natural sugar, yeast, and acid chemical reactions in the fermenting process can take 2 to 6 days depending on the variety of bean and the desired quality of the finished product. The beans are then dried naturally or artificially. In this fermentation process the color of the beans changes from white or violet to brown or reddish brown and the flavor becomes less bitter. Like coffee, cacao beans develop their flavor during roasting so in addition to a visual inspection, small test batches of beans are roasted at this point to determine the quality. They will also be pressed to determine the quality of the resulting chocolate liquor.
The roasting process is done in revolving drums with immediate cooling when the desired roast is achieved. The next stage is winnowing—breaking the beans into small enough pieces to separate the nibs from the shell. Different types of beans are roasted separately to develop each individual flavor and then the nibs are combined in specific proportions to produce the desired flavor, color and quality of finished chocolate.
It is the grinding process called conching which reduces the nibs to a liquid and further develops the flavor--the longer the conching, the finer the pieces, the higher the quality. Conching can take from several hours to a couple weeks (Better quality beans can be conched a longer time.) and each chocolate manufacturer has his own process which may vary for different beans or to produce different final products. After conching, the cocoa butter may be separated from the cocoa powder by pressing.
To manufacture chocolate, the chocolate liquor is mixed with sugar and additional cocoa butter and is milled or refined further to make smaller particles. Here again, the smaller particles (longer process) produce the higher quality smoother chocolate. Chocolate companies in the U.S. and around the world produce, not just one, but many varieties of chocolate with specific qualities and flavors for making products of varying quality, price, mouth feel, and flavor. Bittersweet has no milk and little sugar; semisweet has no milk but more sugar; milk chocolate can range from a very dark chocolate flavor to a very light chocolate with a high milk content. So a candy manufacturer has a myriad of choices available to make various types of candy and pastries—chocolates specifically designed for molding, dipping, enrobing, baking or eating straight from the factory. Many chocolate companies also make chocolate flavored bars or chips using much the same processes but using another vegetable oil rather than the cocoa butter. This makes for a less expensive product that can be used at home with out having to perform the complicated process of tempering the chocolate which is required when re-melting true chocolate.
From its inception, chocolate has been touted for its medicinal and mood altering qualities, even as an aphrodisiac. Recent research has focused on its antioxidant polyphenols and heart healthy flavonoids so this “food of the Gods” is not only sensuous but also a sensible solace.