Off the Beaten Track
in Vol. 17 - September Issue - Year 2016
A Bitter Brew
The Morning Chocolate by Pietro Longhi, Venice
Cacao fruit pods
"They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen."
Thus wrote Ferdinand Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus, when he accompanied his father on his fourth and last voyage to the Americas in 1502. The "almonds" were actually cacao beans, which the explorers found in a large dugout canoe they had seized off the coast of Central America.
The ancient Maya prepared a beverage with crushed and fermented cacao seeds, chili peppers and water. The concoction had a bitter taste and it would be poured back and forth between containers until a thick froth appeared on top. Apparently, our modern word "chocolate" comes from the Mayan word "xocolatl", which means "bitter water".
The Maya used this drink in religious rituals, but also consumed it as an aphrodisiac and as an energizer for soldiers. Notwithstanding its bitter taste, the Maya held the beverage in such high esteem that they called it the "food of gods".
At first, the beverage introduced to Europe was not appreciated. However, it was soon discovered that its taste could be greatly improved by substituting the chili pepper with honey and vanilla. Soon, cocoa was in great demand in the royal courts.
The Spaniards tried to monopolize the supply of cocoa, but within a few years, the French, Dutch and English were cultivating cacao trees in their colonies in the Americas and elsewhere.
The Industrial Revolution brought new processes that increased production and improved quality. In France, a steam-driven mill made it possible to grind huge quantities of cocoa and mass-produce chocolate cheaply. In 1815, the Dutch chemist Conrad van Houten added alkaline salts to reduce bitterness and a few years later he invented the cocoa press, which removed about half of the natural fat from the beans and made it possible to obtain chocolate powder. In 1879, the Swiss Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine, which ground the gritty chocolate paste into a rich, smooth blend.
Cacao comes from an evergreen tree that originated in the tropical rainforests of Mesoamerica, corresponding roughly to modern-day Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, an area originally inhabited by the Maya. Cacao trees grow to a height of about four to eight meters and produce fruits called cacao pods, each of which can be from fifteen to thirty centimeters long, weigh about half-a-kilo, and contain thirty to forty almond-shaped beans embedded in a sweet pulp.
To produce chocolate, the beans and pulp are placed in vats to ferment for about a week. The beans are then dried, preferably in the sun for about five to seven days, and subsequently roasted. After roasting, the bean shells are removed in order to extract the nibs. The final step calls for the nibs to be ground and liquefied, resulting in pure fluid chocolate called cocoa liquor. This liquor is then broken down into two main components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Cocoa liquor and cocoa butter are blended in various percentages together with other ingredients such as sugar, milk or vanilla to produce anything from the finest dark chocolate, containing at least 70% of cocoa solids and butter, to milk chocolate, which typically contains up to 50% cocoa, to white chocolate, with about 35% cocoa butter but no solids.
There are three main varieties of cacao trees. Forastero accounts for nearly 90% of global production and is grown in West Africa. The Criollo variety, thanks to its exquisite aroma and flavor, is the rarest and most expensive. It makes up only about 5% of global production and is grown almost exclusively in Central and South America. The third variety, called Trinitario, is a cross between the other two varieties.
Last year the chocolate industry generated about fifty billion dollars of business, with almost half of that coming from Europe and about 20% from the U.S.
In crop year 2015/2016, world production of cocoa beans is expected to reach about 3,736,000 metric tons, with about 80% of this volume coming from West Africa; 45% from Ivory Coast alone (1,690,000 metric tons).
The scientific name of the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao. Theobroma is Greek for "food of gods". The ancient Maya would be pleased to know that the name they had given to their sacred beverage is still being used after so many centuries.
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN
Author: Giovanni Gregorat