Ah, chocolate. Is there any other confection held in such high regard? The power of chocolate has spurred economies, impacted religious practices, affected cultures, shaped traditions, and influenced the way we go to war.
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The History Of Chocolate
Our passion for chocolate began over 4,000 years ago with the discovery of the cocoa bean in the Amazon. Chocolate was first consumed in liquid form. In fact, the word “chocolate” comes from the Mayan word “xocoatl”, which means “bitter water”.
Cocoa beans were a precious commodity, and used as currency by early civilizations. The Aztecs demanded payment in beans from the tribes they conquered.
In 1528, Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez first sweetened cocoa with sugar, broadening its appeal. Chocolate mania spread throughout Europe.
Solid chocolate didn’t come along until the 1850s. A British chocolate maker, J.S. Fry, created the chocolate bar by adding more cocoa butter and less water.
Chocolate spread around the world thanks to the military. In the late 19th century, Queen Victoria was the first to send gifts of chocolate to soldiers. Chocolate has been a staple in military issued survival kits ever since.
Today’s “Chocolate Revolution”
Today, chocolate is enjoying a revival of sorts. Innovative flavor trends include chocolate flavored with bacon, salt, chili pepper, and lavender. Chocolate coatings have gone beyond covering nuts and raisins to include chocolate covered meats, vegetables and cheese.
Chocolate is being celebrated for its health benefits. Dark chocolate keeps the heart and cardiovascular system fit, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, and stimulates production of “feel good” hormones.
Chocolate is also now part of the spa experience. Today’s cocoa-rich treatments include chocolate milk baths, cocoa bean skin polishers, and chocolate fondue wraps.
Chocolate Takes A Holiday
Every Valentine’s Day love-struck men and women spend more than one billion dollars on chocolate. How did cupid and chocolate come to be so inextricably linked?
From the very beginning, chocolate was a highly prized luxury item. What better way to woo a loved one than with a rare, valuable, decadent gift?
Chocolate’s long held reputation as an aphrodisiac cemented its association with love and romance. Montezuma would drink it before visiting his harem. At one time nuns were forbidden to eat it. Modern-day scientists have linked chemicals found in chocolate to feelings of excitement, attraction and pleasure.
We have the famous chocolatier Richard Cadbury to thank for the ubiquitous heart-shaped box. In 1861, in a genius marketing move, he created the first ever heart-shaped box for Valentine’s Day, driving the commercialization of the holiday.
The Types of Chocolate
There are seven types of chocolate, characterized by their percentage of cocoa solids.
White chocolate is made with cocoa butter, sugar, milk, emulsifier, vanilla and sometimes other flavorings. What it’s not made of is chocolate; the off-white color results from the absence of cocoa solids. White chocolate has no pronounced chocolate taste, but a mild and pleasant flavor.
Milk chocolate is creamy, mild, and sweet. It is the most popular chocolate flavor worldwide. It contains cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, condensed milk or dry milk solids. Milk chocolate normally contains 10-20% cocoa solids (which includes cocoa and cocoa butter) and more than 12% milk solids.
Dark chocolate contains the most health benefits due to its high concentration of antioxidants, a natural byproduct of the cocoa bean. Simply stated, dark chocolate is chocolate without milk solids added. Percentages of cocoa solids vary, ranging from 30% for sweeter varieties all the way up to 80% for extremely dark bars. Dark chocolate has a pronounced chocolate taste with a dry, chalky texture and bitter aftertaste.
Sweet Dark Chocolate
Sweet dark chocolate is similar in taste and texture to semi-sweet chocolate. It is not always possible to distinguish between the flavor of sweet and semi-sweet chocolate, but, as a general rule, sweet dark chocolate contains 35-45% cocoa solids.
A baking staple, semi-sweet chocolate is frequently used for cakes, brownies and, of course, chocolate chip cookies. Semi-sweet chocolate has a milder, sweeter flavor than its dark chocolate cousin, and typically contains 40-62% cocoa solids.
To be classified bittersweet, the chocolate must contain at least 35% cocoa solids. However, good quality bittersweet chocolate usually contains 60% to 85%. It has a rich, intense and more or less bitter chocolate flavor.
Unsweetened chocolate is a bitter chocolate that is only used for baking. Because it contains almost 100% cocoa solids, it is not suitable for eating.
How To Distinguish Fine Chocolate
What distinguishes fine chocolate? In general, there are five factors that combine to produce a fine chocolate product:
1. Cocoa Origin and Processing
Chocolate is an agricultural product. Its character and flavor are dependent on genetics, climate, soil and processing practices. The higher the quality and care taken along the route from bean to bar, the better the finished product will taste.
2. Chocolate Production Processes
The best chocolates come from production facilities that take their time. From bean to finished product is typically a seven to ten step process. Any cut corners will affect the aroma and flavor.
3. Non-Chocolate Ingredient Quality
Non-chocolate ingredients are all those elements that a chocolatier uses to complement the core chocolate, for example: butter, heavy cream, nuts, spices, natural flavoring and colorings. Fresh, pure ingredients are key. Cocoa butter is the only acceptable fat.
4. Chocolate Technical Expertise
A chocolatier must invest countless hours in training, practice, experimentation, trial-and-error and refinement in order to produce consistently fine chocolate confections.
5. Artistry and Presentation
Appearance is part of the initial pleasure and attraction of chocolate, and great care is taken in the presentation and packaging of fine chocolate. From fine detail work done by hand to sophisticated packaging that protects and preserves freshness, fine chocolate is as beautiful as it is delectable.
Tips For Successful Chocolate Pairings
Chocolate tastes even more amazing when paired with wine and cheese. Following are some guidelines to keep in mind:
Pairing Wine and Chocolate
As a general rule, the wine should be as sweet or sweeter than the chocolate you are pairing with. Match lighter, more elegant flavored chocolates with lighter-bodied wines; bolder chocolate pairs well with full-bodied wine.
Pairings that work:
- White chocolate with Zinfandel or Sherry
- Milk chocolate with Pinot Noir, Merlot, Rieslings, Sparkling wine or Champagne
- Dark chocolate with Cabs, Zinfandels, Pinot Noir or Merlot
Pairing Cheese and Chocolate
Try and match cheese and chocolate with similar flavor profiles. For example, the complex flavors of dark chocolate pair well with complex, aged cheeses. The sweetness and dairy flavor components of milk chocolate pair perfectly with buttery, soft cheeses.
Pairings to try:
- White chocolate with Brie or Camambert
- Milk chocolate with Ricotta or Brie
- Dark chocolate with blue cheese, Gouda, Jack, Asiago or Fontina
Whether you eat it, drink it, or bathe in it; prefer it white or dark; bold or mild; there are few foods people feel as passionate about. To quote Mr. Hershey himself, “chocolate is permanent.”
- The Swiss eat the most chocolate per capita
- 66% of chocolate is consumed between meals
- Chocolate manufacturers currently use 40% of the world's almonds and 20%
- of the world's peanuts
- 22% of all chocolate consumption takes place between 8pm and midnight
- More chocolate is consumed in the winter than any other season
- Chocolate is a complex food with over 300 compounds and chemicals in each bite.