With time, this website will contain more information than anyone has ever thought to compile about chocolate. In the meantime, I think it is worth talking about the absolute basics of what is fine chocolate, and how does it differ from the $#^& you get on Halloween. This site is not about candy – it is about a fine food.
Chocolate comes from the seeds (usually called beans) of the Theobroma cacao tree. The tree grows in the tropics around the world, but it is originally from Central and South America and the Caribbean islands. The fruit grows in brightly-colored pods that resemble the lovechild of a Nerf football and a pumpkin, and within is a large group of seeds – each encased in its own pulp. That pulp is delicious, but the seed within is vile…at first. Once the pods are harvested, it is critical to open the pods, scoop out the seeds/pulp, and get them fermenting VERY quickly. Fermentation is a delicious process in general, and with chocolate it begins the work of developing flavors and reducing bitterness within the seeds. After a few days, the seeds are dried and ready for transport.
Chocolate producers tend to be in temperate climates, but more and more fantastic chocolate producers are coming into their own in the countries where the beans are grown. The first item of business for the producers is to sort out the rocks, twigs, and other detritus that comes along in the massive burlap sacks of beans. Glass does not play kindly with the equipment downstream. Roasting comes next. The flavors develop further, and bitterness is reduced still more, as heat kisses the beans and begins the transformation to chocolate. Many people count roasting as the differentiation between cacao (kuh-KOW) beans and cocoa.
Winnowing is a process that cracks the beans – usually about double the size of an almond – and uses air and vacuum to separate the papery husk from the little pieces of bean called nibs. It is in this state – nibs – that the chocolate really starts coming together, as the producers begin the real grinding processes. There is no one way to grind cocoa beans, and as such, many producers have developed different styles and tastes that have much to do with their strategies. But the grinding pulverizes the nibs and releases the fat, and the silky-smooth melted chocolate is born. Generally, the other ingredients are added early on in the grinding process, and we will have much to say about that in the future. For now, suffice it to say that sugar is necessary to make chocolate in the traditional sense, and sometimes vanilla, cocoa butter – fat extracted from other cocoa beans – and lecithin are added for flavor, texture, and ease of production. The grinding can take days, and can involve multiple steps to bring out certain aromas and evaporate some volatile chemicals in the pursuit of what the chocolate maker wants to present to the world.
From here, the chocolate must be cooled in precise ways before it is poured into molds and cast as its final shape. The precise cooling is known as tempering, and it is quite like a blacksmith quenching a red-hot sword in a vat of water or oil to change the crystalline structure. Perfectly tempered chocolate will have a sheen that shows reflections, and it won’t bend before it snaps loudly. Further, it will melt consistently in your mouth and present all the complexities and aromas in the most gripping way possible as the texture seduces and calms you.
Every step in the process allows for variation and personal style ranging from the types of trees grown, to the fermentation and drying protocols, to the roasting particulars, grinding preferences, ingredient choices, and tempering skill. The chosen thickness of the finished bar has a profound impact on the delivery of the flavors and aromas and textures of the chocolate. There is an endless well of unique character to explore, and that it happens to be delicious is icing on the cake!
Have I mentioned how much I love chocolate? Because I really do…