A Brief History of Chocolate

Delicious, delectable, soothing and, yes, American. Chocolate was a New World discovery, one of the most sought-after treasures brought back to Europe from the brave new land across the Atlantic.

Cacao, from which chocolate is created, is said to have originated in the Amazon at least 4,000 years ago. The Aztecs were so enthralled with the bean that they attributed its creation to their god Quetzalcoatl who, as the legend goes descended from heaven on a beam of a morning star carrying a cacao tree stolen from paradise. In fact, the Aztecs valued the cacao bean so much that they used it as currency.

The Aztecs also used the cacao beans to prepare a thick, cold, unsweetened drink called chocolatl - a liquid so prestigious that it was served in golden goblets that were thrown away after one use. Christopher Columbus, in 1502, was the first European to run across the beans on his fourth voyage to the New World.

Hernando Cortez, however, was a man with his eye on a golden doubloon. While he was fascinated with Aztec's bitter, spicy beverage, he was more impressed by the fact that cacao beans were used as Aztec currency. In 1519 he established in the name of Spain a cacao plantation where "money" could be cultivated. And when he returned to Spain in 1528, he took some of the wondrous beans back to Charles V, his King. Cortez had a suspicion that if this bitter beverage were blended with cane sugar, not only would it be more agreeable to European tastes, but it could become quite the delicacy. He was right. The Spaniards mixed the beans with sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, clove, allspice, and cinnamon. The resulting concoction became the drink of the nobility - a secret Spain managed to keep from the rest of the world for almost 100 years.

CACAO CULTIVATION

All chocolate products start with the cacao tree. Its scientific name is Theobroma cacao L. from the Greek Theobroma, meaning food of the Gods, and cacao from the Aztec, cacahuatl. There are three varieties - each grown in different parts of the world. Criollo comes from Central America, Venezuela, Colombia, and parts of Asia; Forastero originates in the Upper Amazon. Within the Forastero group are cacaos from Brazil, West Africa, Equador, Latin America, Java, and Sri Lanka. The third group, Trinitarios, is the result of breeding between Trinidad Criollos and Amazon Forasteros.

The cacao tree, which ranges from 15 to 25 feet high at maturity, is planted in sheltered, areas in moist, tropical climates. It needs plenty of rainfall and adequate drainage to mature. When the trees begin to bear fruit the ripened pods are shaped like small footballs - in red, orange, or gold. Ripe pods are collected and broken open. The wet sticky seeds, called beans are scooped out and the white, shiny "flesh" starts to change color. The beans turn to a deep lavender or purple. They are allowed to ferment in their own natural heat which helps develop their flavor characteristics.

The fermented beans turn to a rich brown color - a sign that they are ready for drying. In many cases, this is accomplished simply by spreading the beans on trays or bamboo matting and leaving them in the sun. If the climate conditions interfere with this drying drying process, the beans may be dried over hot air pipes. After drying, they are put into bags for shipping to chocolate factories all over the world.

FROM CACAO BEAN tO CHOCOLATE

After crossing the sea, beans are stored at factories either in silos or in their original sacks in warehouses. These rooms are well aired, kept at cool temperature and the humidity regularly checked. Before the production stage, the beans are sorted and cleaned.

Like coffee, cocoa does not acquire the richness of its color and the fullness of its flavor until it is roasted. The degree of care given to this operation has considerable influence on the ultimate quality of the end product - either cocoa powder or chocolate. When roasting is complete, the beans are cooled and their thin shells removed by a winnowing machine. The husked and winnowed beans are called "nibs". Here's where the first secrets of the chocolate manufacturer come in. The nibs are blended, combining as many as 8-10 varieties. It is control of these subtle mixtures that maintains a constant quality and brings out the flavor of each particular variety of chocolate.

The roasted and winnowed nibs then pass through refining mills and are ground. The heat generaated by grinding causes the cocoa butter or fat to melt and form a fine paste or liquid known as chocolate "liquor." This goes to large hydraulic presses which remove most of the cocoa butter. The "cake" which is left may eventually be made into cocoa powder. The cake goes through several processes in which it is crushed, milled and finely sifted. To make a well-balanced hot cocoa mix, add sugar, non-fat milk, flavors and other ingredients.

To make milk chocolate, milk, sugar, cocoa butter and other ingredients must be added to the bitter chocolate liquor. Every type of chocolate is prepared in accordance with a completely individual recipe. The blending of the various types of cocoa pastes and the blending of the other ingredients determines the ultimate taste and quality of the chocolate.

After the cocoa paste, cocoa butter, milk, sugar and additional flavorings have been carefully weighed out in accordance with the recipe, they go into a mixer where rotating, kneading arms thoroughly mix all the ingredients. The result is a homogeneous, paste-like mixture which is already pleasant to taste, but still feels gritty to the palate.

The finished mixture again goes through rolling machinery which pulverizes the tiny particles of cocoa and sugar even further to give the chocolate its smooth, eating texture. The paste is transported to conching machines which heat and stir the paste in the last and most important refining process. Conching allows the separate flavors of the individual ingredients to combine. As the paste is stirred, cocoa butter is added which makes the chocolate ready for molding. As the chocolate turns over in the conching machine, a controlled amount of air ventilates the mass, allowing the full aroma and flavor to develop. In 1875, Daniel Peter of Vevey, Switzerland invented milk chocolate, now known as Swiss milk chocolate or simply Swiss chocolate. For chocolate lovers, the result is a rich, smooth, creamy "mouthfeel".

The still-warm conched chocolate is placed in a tempering machine so that it can be slowly and steadily cooled. The tempering prevents separation in the chocolate when it's filled into bar molds and hardens. Proper tempering also results in a silky sheen and crisp "snap" when broken - another sign of a superior quality chocolate bar.

RECOGNIZING THE VERY BEST MILK CHOCOLATE

You may think milk chocolates are all alike. Not so. The quality of milk chocolate depends upon a number of factors including the kind of cacao beans and other ingredients used, the formulation, as well as the length of time the chocolate is conched and the care taken in its preparation.

To determine the "best" milk chocolate, use the following criteria:

  • Appearance--Fine chocolate should be rich in color, with a smooth, glossy surface. Cracked or dull-colored chocolate is an indication of poor quality.
  • Snap--High quality chocolate should have a decisive "snap" when it is broken.
  • Aroma--A strong chocolaty aroma - not one that's fruity or flowery - indicates good chocolate.
  • Mouthfeel--Fine milk chocolate should feel creamy and melt smoothly across the palate. The extra fine creamy texture is achieved by conching (agitation/blending) ingredients. The longer the conching, the creamier the chocolate.
  • Taste--The taste of high quality milk chocolate should be rich, sweet and chocolaty - never harsh or bitter.






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Updated November 2013