I remember when chocolate bars were ten cents apiece and they were not small. When I was a kid, I would walk a good distance to the smallcorner grocery store to buy them. One of my mother’s favorite stories about when she was pregnant with me was that she would crave chocolate so much so that she ate a Hershey’s bar everyday.
Chocolate is interwoven into our cultural experience. We share it with others, give it as a gift and use it in many unique culinary ways. Once it was used as a currency, and for most of its history it has been consumed predominantly as a drink. Chocolate is made from the seeds, often referred to as beans, of the cacao tree, which originally came from the Amazon River Basin. These seeds have been used to produce products that have been traded globally for hundreds of years.
Three varieties of cacao trees
There are three varieties of cacao trees that are cultivated for chocolate production today: Criollo, Forastero and their hybrid Trinitario. Criollo is highly sought after for its exceptional flavor. The plant is not as vigorous as its relatives, since it is susceptible to disease and will often be grafted on Forastero rootstock when grown. The Forastero is a very hardy and disease resistant strain. It makes up the majority of chocolate produced around the world. The Trinitario was created as a hybrid of the Criollo and Forastero. It was thought that producers may be able to make better tasting chocolate, much like the Criollo, but without the weak plants typical of the strain. It seems to have mostly succeeded in this, since it is more flavorful than the Forastero, and has more virility and disease resistance than the Criollo.
The cacao tree is ideally shade-grown under much larger rainforest giants’ canopies. It thrives between twenty degrees north latitude and twenty degrees south latitude, because it needs temperatures above 60ºF and year-round moisture in humid conditions. A new tree typically takes three to four years to produce its first cacao pods. They take about five months to grow full-sized, and then are harvested a month later when they have ripened. The pods contain white pulp and cacao beans (seeds). Each cacao pod contains roughly between 20-50 beans, varying by size. It takes roughly 94 of these beans to make a three ounce bar of chocolate.
After harvesting, the pods are taken to a fermentation station for normally three to six days. When they arrive they are split open, and the pulp and beans inside are emptied into bins and covered. The pulp liquefies during the first day as the heat rises and provides the sugar, which combines with naturally occurring yeast to fuel the fermentation. This mixture is stirred regularly to promote aeration. The beans germinate and then are killed off on the second day due to high temperatures. Once the beans’ cell walls break down, a complex chemical process takes place. It is through fermentation that the cacao reaches its best flavor.
The next step is to dry the cacao beans. Many farmers will dry the beans in the sun, but they must stay dry, so often large tent rooms are used in case there is rain. A thin layer is poured into a wood box that has a screen for a bottom and is elevated several feet off the ground. The cacao is stirred several times a day to promote good air circulation over the beans and aid in the drying. The process can take one to two weeks during which time they will lose over half of their weight.
Cleaning & Roasting
The cacao is now ready to be sold to the manufacturers of chocolate. When it gets to the next point on its journey, the beans will be cleaned and roasted. Roasting is essential to the creation of good aroma and flavor, as it reduces the astringency of the cacao. It also helps to separate the outer shell from the bean. The final part of the cleaning is called winnowing, where the shells are removed from the nibs, or cacao pieces. The nibs are then ground up and used to make chocolate.
So what should a good high-quality chocolate bar taste like? Like so many things in life, it seems like a matter of preference by the eater. Is it dark or milk for you? Are there different notes in the flavor profile of the bar reflecting the terroir of the growing region? As our knowledge of chocolate has grown, so have the number of high end chocolate bar makers. One can find cacao beans from almost every end of the middle of the globe. I think it is safe to say that when it comes to chocolate there is something for everyone’s taste.