Chocolate is made from cocoa (aka “cacao”) beans. Cocoa beans come from a tropical evergreen tree native to Central America but are now grown throughout the tropical world.
Cocoa trees need to have three or four years of growth before they start producing cocoa pods. The pods grow right out of the trunks and main limbs of the tree. The pods, about the size of pineapples, grow about 9 inches (23 cm) long and start off green, turn to red, and then yellow when ripe. Each pod will contain from 30 to 40 beans about the size of lima beans.
The pods are harvested several times a year by hand with machete knives. Care must be taken not to damage the trees by hacking into the bark. The harvested pods are opened to reveal the cocoa beans nestled amongst a white, cotton-like substance. The beans are cream-coloured when first harvested, but turn purple after some exposure to the air. The beans are removed from the pods along with the white substance, covered and let ferment (which reduces some of the bitterness and darkens the beans from purple to brown) for about 6 days. The white substance disappears during fermentation.
Some processors allow the cocoa beans only 3 days to ferment, but this results in beans whose weaker flavour must be bolstered with substantial amounts of vanilla and sugar further on in the manufacturing process. Underfermented beans will still have some purple showing in them, either outside or in their core.
After fermenting, the beans are dried for 10 to 20 days, before being shipped to a processor (often in another country), where they are cleaned and roasted to develop the flavour and aroma. After roasting, the beans are brittle and very dark brown. A machine will crack the beans, and separate the shells from the kernels. The shells are discarded. The kernels are crushed to a paste, which is called chocolate or cocoa liquor. Left to set, the paste will form “Unsweetened Chocolate.” To make cocoa powder, 30 % of the cocoa butter in the paste is extracted, leaving behind a powder which is sifted and dried.
Most American desserts use unsweetened chocolate. European desserts tend to use bitter or semisweet chocolate.
When melting chocolate, don’t overheat it, or it may go lumpy and grainy and lose its shine. It’s best to stop it from coming into direct contact with the heat — either melt it in a double-boiler, or put it (broken into small pieces) in a bowl sat in a large bowl of just boiled water. You don’t need to stir it when melting it like this — in fact, at this stage it’s best to stir it as little as possible. You can also melt it in a microwave, but sometimes it can crystallize in a microwave if the heat is too high — use the defrost seating. In the microwave, it will melt on the inside first, so if you see it holding its shape when you think something should have happened, try pressing or stirring it with a spoon before zapping it any more.
When melting in a double-boiler, don’t put a lid over the chocolate pan as water condensation on the lid may drip down into the chocolate and cause it to thicken up and go grainy.
When melting chocolate combined with a liquid, as a rule use 1 tablespoon of liquid with 2 oz (50 g) of chocolate. Any less and the chocolate may just seize up into a grainy paste; any more and it may become too thin. Add the liquid to the chocolate before you begin melting the chocolate; adding it later in the process will also cause it to go grainy.
Carob for the look, but not the taste. Don’t substitute milk chocolate for other chocolate called for in cooking, as it will cook differently owing to the milk in it.
Per 1 oz (25 g) of Chocolate, substitute 1 tablespoon of butter or shortening plus 3 tablespoon cocoa.
The substance in chocolate that triggers migraines in some people is tyramine. It is not present in carob.
Chocolate contains “theobromaine”, which is dangerous for animals. This is present also in carob in minute amounts.
The caffeine in chocolate is in the cocoa liquor.
Chocolate can go grey on the surface if it is old or stored improperly. This is caused by cocoa butter coming to the surface. It is called “fat bloom”. The cocoa butter will recombine with the chocolate when it is heated.
Wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated, Chocolate can keep for a few years. Bitter and Semisweet Chocolate will last longer than Milk Chocolate.
Chocolate was possibly being used as early as 1500 BC by the Olmecs in South America. Elite Mayans drank it, mixed with herbs, spices or chiles, and foamed. The Aztec elite drank it as well, and even named a special type of cup for it (xicalli). They often mixed it with annatto to redden it, as well as herbs and spices and chiles for a savoury drink, or with honey, vanilla and allspice for a sweet drink. Both Mayans and Aztec used cocoa beans as currency. A tomato was worth 1 cocoa bean, an avocado cost three. Sometimes even “counterfeit” cocoa beans circulated: just the shells packed with clay.
Christopher Columbus “discovered” cocoa beans on 15 August 1502 when he pirated a Mayan ship near the coast of what is now Honduras. He didn’t know what the beans were; he assumed they were some form of almond. He did know, though, that the natives considered them valuable:
“They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.”
The Spanish conqueror, Cortes, during his time in Mexico (approximately 1519 – 1524) found the Aztecs making a drink from cocoa beans that they called “tchocalatl”, which they seasoned with chili peppers. In 1528, upon his return to Spain, he gave some cocoa beans to Spanish king Charles V.
Prince Philip of Spain was brought cocoa to drink in the Aztec fashion in 1544. The Spanish decided it was better made by replacing the chilis with vanilla, and adding milk and sugar.
In 1585, the first large shipment of cocoa beans — from Veracruz, Mexico to Seville, Spain, was recorded.
By 1650, Chocolate was known in England, having appeared about the same time as coffee and tea. Samuel Pepys drank it.
The Baker Chocolate company started in America in 1765. The chocolate they made was in the form of small squares originally meant to be dissolved for drinking. The name Baker came from Dr. James Baker of Massachusetts, one of the two founders of the company. The company was bought out by General Foods in 1927.
The Swiss started making chocolate to drink in 1819.
In 1828, a Dutch man named Van Houten invented cocoa powder.
In 1847, J.S. Fry in Bristol made the first chocolate bar. Britain lowered taxes on chocolate in the mid-1850s to help manufacturers popularize it.
By 1879, Nestlé in Switzerland was making Milk Chocolate bars.
Hershey’s in America started in the chocolate business in 1893. Their Milk Chocolate bar was introduced in 1900; Hershey’s Kisses in 1905. In 1906, Hershey’s bought the town of Derry Church in Pennsylvania and renamed it Hershey. There used to be a second town named Hershey — in Cuba — until the Communists took power in 1959.
Cadbury made its first Dairy Milk bar in 1905. The great British chocolate families — Rowntree, Cadbury, Fry and Terry — were all Quakers, who advocated chocolate drinks as a replacement for alcohol.
Toblerone Bars were introduced in Switzerland in 1908 by a man named Jean Tobler.
Godiva chocolates started in 1926. They decided to go high end, rather than challenge Hershey, Cadbury and Nestlé at the low end.
Literature & Lore
Italian cooks, particularly in Napoli, worked overtime to introduce cocoa in every recipe they could. They sprinkled it on polenta and on roasted quail, and incorporated it into lasagne and almond sauce. An Italian writer Francesco Arisi (aka “Francisco Arisi”, aka Franciscus Arisius”), 1657 – 1743, was moved to complain in writing:
“Certo cuoco, a cui mancato
Il formaggio era in cucina,
Sovra nobil polentina
Dispensò ben grattugiato
Bolli due di cioccolato:”
[“A certain cook, who was short of cheese, garnished noble polenta with two grated balls of chocolate”.]
Chocolate originated with the Aztec word “xocolatl”, which meant “bitter water”, referring to one of the ways in which they drank it.