When I began to research chocolate, I decided to immerse myself in the subject. Well, more like drown myself in it. I rented Like Water for Chocolate and Chocolat. I re-read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I ate several pounds of chocolate, but only the very best. Because, as a wise man once said to me, if you’re going to drown, drown in the Ganges.
It is not just for the sublime experience that I buy the best. There are other reasons. Most chocolate bars can’t even be called chocolate. Just read the label on a chocolate bar sometime. You’ll notice they’re actually called “candy” or “wafer bar”. Some of them have a thin chocolatey layer at best – “ called a “confectionary” coating. They also substitute vegetable or palm oils for the cocoa butter and put other junk in it too.
Chocolate connoisseurs know what to look for and use their senses to rate the products. A well-educated nose can sniff out perfumed or sugary scents – “ a dead giveaway that artificial flavours and preservatives have been added. High quality chocolate has a fresh, deep aroma.
There are health reasons too. Dark chocolate (with 70% cocoa mass) is a rich source of antioxidants. It also has the least amount of sugar. And it’s good for your heart too! Plus we get a mental boost because chocolate triggers the release of endorphins.
Single origin chocolate is a whole new trend in the high-end industry. The beans are still blended, although there’s a higher percentage of the flavour beans, but the blend is from a specific region like Java, Cuba, Grenada, Tanzania and Madagascar. Like wine or coffee, the chocolate absorbs the taste of the region’s soil. I did a taste test with Greg Hook while I was at the Chocolate Arts factory. It was amazing how different each one of the chocolates tasted. And because chocolate of origin bars come from smaller islands they can be more easily inspected, so there is a lower incidence of child slavery.
I learned a lot about chocolate from an ancient National Geographic article (Food of the Gods, by Gordon Young, November 1984) that Greg gave me as homework. While the chocolate industry has been modernized over the years, the first few steps of chocolate bean processing are still done the same way as the Aztecs used to do it. The shade-loving cacao tree grows in tropical countries where the pods are harvested from the trunks year round. The gelatinous seeds are extracted and laid out on banana leaves to ferment in the sun.
“Chocolate is very acidic,” Greg told me. “That’s why when it’s left out to ferment there is no bacterial growth.” The truffles he was feeding me on my visit use a highly acidic type of dark chocolate.
Once dried, the beans are bagged and shipped off to foreign manufacturers for roasting and further processing. At the plants, chocolate is cleaned, roasted and shelled, the nibs are shattered by heavy-duty machines and ground into a paste called chocolate liquor. Don’t get excited, the liquor has no alcohol in it, but is the base for all chocolate and cocoa. The hardened liquor becomes baking chocolate. But if the chocolate liquor is pressurized, an amber coloured cocoa butter oozes out, leaving behind a cake-ish lump. The “chocolate press cake” is then ground and becomes cocoa powder. To make candy, more fatty cocoa butter is blended with the chocolate liquor. If cocoa butter alone is used, with no liquor added, that is white chocolate. Dutch chocolate goes through an alkalizing process to achieve different colourings and flavourings. Milk chocolate of course has milk added to it.
I have a penchant for milk chocolate. Greg used to be addicted to it too, he admitted. “It’s the sugar in it,” he said. But now he finds that if he eats three pieces of dark chocolate a day – “ containing at least 75% cocoa solids, he is satisfied. He also doesn’t get cavities nor does he gain weight. Still, he does go on the occasional binge. The record for staff at the store is 20 chocolates in a day! I will not divulge my record.
So buy the good stuff, it’s better quality, better for us and there is less of a chance it will be tainted with child slavery. You can buy fair trade or organic chocolate (organic chocolate has stringent monitoring systems that check labour practices too) at many health food stores and specialty shops. If you can’t find fair trade or organic products, buy the more expensive, high quality chocolate with high cocoa content. But first, ask your chocolate retailer about the chocolate they buy. Just because it’s expensive doesn’t guarantee that a child didn’t slave over your sweet treat.
Here are a few trusted brands to indulge in over Christmas. Have a merry time!
Excerpt from Something’s Rotten in Compost City, A Plot to Take Over the Food You Eat by Spring Gillard.