Christopher Columbus, considered the first European to see cocoa beans, first tasted cocoa in Nicaragua, on his fourth voyage to the New World, in 1502, but was not impressed. It remained for another Spanish explorer, Heman Cortes, to introduce the chocolate drink to the Spanish court. The drink was pungent and bitter, so the Spaniards added sugar and vanilla to it. These additions made the drink much more palatable and it quickly became very popular at court and in high society.
The chocolate itself, during those early days in Spain, was prepared by monks in their cloisters; this preparation became a hallowed tradition. Monastery kitchens had long served as workshops for the creation of delicious new recipes; now the good brothers worked toward perfecting the roasting and grinding of cocoa beans, themselves growing fond of a cup of the fragrant, steaming brew. Today you can order the world’s best gourmet hot cocoa at http://126.96.36.199//users/s/cocoa/.
Spain began to plant more and more cocoa overseas, but kept its preparation a secret for most of the 16th century. In the Atlantic battles of the time, when a Spanish frigate was captured by Dutch or English ships, the boarding sailors would scavenge everything of value but toss into the sea the nameless, meaningless cocoa beans they found. They had no idea that those “worthless” beans were a highly taxed luxury item in Spain.
But little by little, word of the new drink began to trickle out. Travelers came to Madrid to sample its elegancies, among them the sipping of chocolate. An Italian named Antonio Carletti took the custom home with him and Italy embarked on its long, inventive way with chocolate. From then on, the drink spread throughout Europe.
When Anne of Austria married Louis XIII of France she brought her own chocolate with her; when the Spanish princess Marie Therese married Louis XIV, chocolate was drunk at court, a royal chocolate maker was appointed and chocolate drinking became the rage.
Coffee houses, which were already established meeting places in England, were now joined by chocolate houses. These places were precursors of our present day cafes and bars, and they were frequented by politicians, writers and socialites.
In 1828, a quest for a better beverage resulted in a real breakthrough when a Dutch chemist named Coenraad van Houten invented a screw press that squeezed out about two-thirds of the cocoa butter and left “chocolate powder”—or, as it has been known ever since, cocoa—the basis of a drink with almost all the familiar savor of chocolate but none of the overrichness. Next he ended the use of coloring agents used to deepen the color of chocolate by inventing the process, called “dutching” in his honor, still in use today. Cocoa is now treated with alkali to neutralize its acidity, mellow its color and flavor and render it more soluble in liquids.
Chocolate makers began to consider what to do with those heaps of cocoa butter. Richness, undesirable in a drink, might be exceedingly desirable in something to eat. The Bristol firm of Fry & Sons, which had been producing the drinking variety since 1728, introduced “eating chocolate” in 1847 by combining the extracted cocoa butter with the chocolate liquor and sugar. Then in 1875 in Switzerland, Daniel Peter added condensed milk to chocolate and marketed the first solid milk chocolate bar. The reign of the world’s happiest nibble had begun.
A few years later, Rodolphe Lindt invented a way of refining chocolate. As long as chocolate was made into a drink it didn’t matter if it had lumps and gritty bits as these tended to dissolve or sink with the addition of liquid. However, a solid chocolate bar was a different matter. Lindt’s process became known as “conching,” and it consisted of putting the chocolate in heated drums for about 72 hours and rubbing it between rollers or discs. This process gave a silky smoothness to chocolate, allowing it to be poured into different molds rather than just pressed into “cakes.” To find out how our American chocolate is made, take Hershey’s chocolate tour (http://www.hersheys.com/~hershey/tour/plany.index.html).
Since Lindt’s innovation, the technological changes in the manufacture of chocolate and chocolate products have come fast and furious. To read up on the latest in the world of chocolate, take a look at Chocolatier Magazine (http://www.godiva.com:80/services/subscribe-chocolatier.html), a fabulous magazine completely devoted to chocolate.
With all this going on, with chocolate getting better and better, more tastable, more meltable, more edible, humankind clamored for more cocoa beans, which meant that the great worldwide spread of cocoa-tree cultivation was on.
The Cocoa Tree
European growers of the cocoa tree needed several things: first, enough political or economic influence over a territory to move in with plantations; second, special conditions of geography and climate, and finally, rainfall, abundant and more or less steady, at least 50 inches a year.
These conditions were met in a number of places, and in the 19th century, plantations spread from Brazil to SaoThome, from Venezuela to the Philippines, Madagascar to Ceylon.
Cocoa trees can grow as tall as 50 feet, and as old as 60 years. To provide the shaded sunlight cocoa trees love, the endearingly named “cocoa mothers”—tropical forest trees like the banana, baobab, cassava and pimiento—are planted right alongside to protect the tender young cocoas from too much sun, especially during the vulnerable first three to four years.
Pods grow on the trunks and larger branches of the trees, and take five to six months to ripen. They are generally harvested twice a year, at the beginning and at the end of the rainy season. The ripe pod, about eight inches long and three or four inches around, is cut down carefully by hand so as not to injure younger pods still ripening on the tree. The crop goes off to the next stage, at a nearby fermentation site.
Here, with a knife or just a quick blow with a machete, the tough pods are split open to reveal the cocoa beans, 20 to 40 per pod, surrounded by a mass of sticky, white pulp. The beans are bitter-tasting at this point, but the pulp is delicious. Traditionally, this was done immediately after harvest; today, pods are sometimes first stored whole for a few days to prime them for fermentation.
Fermenting begins when the beans come into contact with the air. Banana leaves are laid on the ground; the beans are spread over them, covered with a second layer of banana leaves and left to ferment for several days, turned around occasionally to make sure the fermentation is even. Sometimes the process takes place in baskets instead of on the ground; sometimes the most modern method is used, and the beans are allowed to ferment in large, flat, sloping boxes, under a layer of leaves.
Now at least a glimmering sense of chocolate emerges. At first the beans are creamy beige in color, but they change to purple when exposed to the air. During fermentation, the pulp disintegrates, producing steamy heat which kills off the germ in the cocoa beans so that they cannot sprout, and starts a chain of chemical reactions that remove the bitterness and develop the characteristic chocolate flavor. At the end of fermentation, which can take from two to six days, the beans have turned brown and have become separated from the pulp. Without fermenting, no matter what other processes they go through later, cocoa beans can never develop the expected chocolate taste.
Water-filled beans are not only wastefully heavy to ship, but liable to spoil during the voyage. So, after fermentation, they are spread out to dry in the tropical sun for several days. They become browner still, developing an aroma a little closer to the chocolate scent we recognize, their moisture content reduced to a manageable percentage. Aeration of the dried beans during storage is critical in order to prevent the growth of molds, so workers toss the beans with shovels to expose them evenly to the air. They are now ready to be packed into burlap bags and sent across various oceans to chocolate factories everywhere.
On arrival at the factory, the beans are cleaned and sorted, then roasted similarly to coffee beans. During roasting, the beans become darker brown, the shell becomes brittle, and the beans take on their full “chocolate” aroma. The roasted beans are now put into a machine which cracks them open, and an artifical wind blows away the brittle shell, leaving behind the cocoa “nibs.”
The nibs are ground between rollers to produce a thick dark paste, or “chocolate liquor.” This is called the “mass” and it hardens on cooling. It is sometimes formed into bars at this stage and sold as unsweetened baking chocolate. This “mass” or chocolate liquor is the basis of all chocolate and cocoa products.
To make cocoa powder, the chocolate liquor is poured into a press. A good percentage of the cocoa butter is pressed out, leaving a solid, dry cake. This is then crushed, ground and sieved, and the end result is cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is sold just as it is or it can be mixed with a variety of ingredients such as sugar, starches and milk to produce drinking chocolate or chocolate malted drinks.
Whereas cocoa is made by extracting cocoa butter from the chocolate liquor, chocolate is made by adding extra cocoa butter to it. When sugar is added this produces “plain” chocolate, and when milk and sugar is added, “milk” chocolate results. “White” chocolate (sometimes labeled “confectionery coating”) is made from cocoa butter only, with the addition of sugar and milk. Because products made with vegetable fat rather than with cocoa butter are also called confectionery coatings, it is imperative to read the label to be certain the product you are buying contains cocoa butter.
The Finishing Touch
When the various ingredients are added to the liquor they are blended in a mixing machine. At this point the mixture is still gritty, so it goes through a system of heavy rollers, called a refiner. The chocolate is smooth after this stage, but to make it really silky on the tongue, it has to go through a final treatment: conching. This stirring process takes place in large drums or conches, from the Spanish “concha,” meaning shell, in which the chocolate is heated and kneaded with rollers. After conching, the liquid chocolate is tempered or cooled so that the fat begins to harden and the chocolate can then be molded. The filled molds are cooled, the chocolate removed and wrapped, and the finished product sent to stores. So ends the journey from cocoa bean to chocolate bar.
To store blocks of chocolate, wrap them first in foil, then plastic, and keep in a cool, dry place with good air circulation. Perfectly stored unsweetened and dark chocolate will keep for as long as 10 years. Milk chocolate keeps for about a year and white chocolate for seven or eight months. Storing baking or couverture chocolate in the refrigerator or freezer for any length of time is not recommended, as the humidity may cause sugar bloom, and affect the taste and texture of the chocolate.