“A fascinating account of the history and mystery of chocolate.” David Shaw, Los Angeles Times
Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Lightby Mort Rosenblum
The delectable journey into the world of chocolate--by the award-winning author of Olives
Science, over recent years, has confirmed what chocolate lovers have always known: the stuff is actually good for you. It's the Valentine's Day drug of choice, has more antioxidants than red wine, and triggers the same brain responses as falling in love./b>/i>
The delectable journey into the world of chocolate--by the award-winning author of Olives
Science, over recent years, has confirmed what chocolate lovers have always known: the stuff is actually good for you. It's the Valentine's Day drug of choice, has more antioxidants than red wine, and triggers the same brain responses as falling in love. Nothing, in the end, can stand up to chocolate as a basic fundament to human life.
In this scintillating narrative, acclaimed foodie Mort Rosenblum delves into the complex world of chocolate. From the mole poblano (chile-laced chicken with chocolate) of ancient Mexico to the contemporary French chocolatiers who produce the palets d'or (bite-sized, gold-flecked bricks of dark chocolate) to the vast empires of Hershey, Godiva, and Valrhona, Rosenblum follows the chocolate trail the world over. He visits cacao plantations; meets with growers, buyers, makers, and tasters; and investigates the dark side of the chocolate trade as well as the enduring appeal of its product. Engaging, entertaining, and revealing, Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light is an intriguing foray into this "food of the gods."
“A fascinating account of the history and mystery of chocolate.” David Shaw, Los Angeles Times
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A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light
By Mort Rosenblum
North Point PressCopyright © 2005 Mort Rosenblum
All rights reserved.
THE GODS' BREAKFAST
A half millennium ago, a canoe full of Indians rowed out to an ungainly floating house anchored at Guanaja, a palm-flecked island off the Honduran coast. Christopher Columbus had stopped by on the way home from his fourth and last trip to America, still hopeful he might find useful riches beyond an expanse of alien real estate. The Indians offered what he took to be a handful of shriveled almonds. He was mystified when a few dropped to the bottom of their canoe, his son reported later, and "they scrambled for them as though they were eyes that had fallen out of their heads." But Columbus's Mayan was no better than the natives' Spanish. He returned to Spain empty-handed.
Chocolate has come a long way since then.
These days, those almondlike cacao beans that the grand Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus named Theobroma — elixir of the gods — are the basis of a $60 billion industry. From the time laborers scoop them from pods in equatorial jungles until fine chocolatiers massage them into gold-flecked ganaches, the value of a bean might increase several hundred times. But money is hardly the way to measure their worth.
One night in Paris, a friend took me to a tasting of the Club des Croqueurs de Chocolat, a circle of people who believe well-crafted bonbons to be as vital to life as oxygen. We tried one creation after another, noting every nuance from the sheen on their coatings to subtle flashes of flavor that lingered on the tongue. With knowing nods and silent smiles, we made checks on evaluation sheets next to adjectives borrowed from the complex lexicon of wine.
Finally, sated to near stupor, we settled back to hear the tastemaster announce plans for the next session. We would, he said, be sampling the finest eclairs au chocolat that France had to offer.
"Ah, oui," one woman breathed from the back of the room. "Oouuiii," another added, with more power, and a third joined in with loud staccato moans: "Oui, oui, oui." Suddenly the sedate hotel dining room was blue with the piercing shrieks of passion. Columbus would have loved it.
Like every other American kid, I grew up on Hershey bars and those colorful little blobs that, M&M's claims aside, melted in my hand as well as in my mouth. Over the years, as an amateur food lover and professional traveler, I learned to appreciate other variations on the theme. That evening in Paris, however, showed me I was clueless, a chocolate ignoramus.
Tracing chocolate from its origins to its most elaborate final forms, I suspected, would be a wondrous journey. But only after I followed cacao into a fierce African rebellion and then stood paralyzed with pleasure at the heady scent inside Michel Chaudun's little shop in the seventh arrondissement of Paris did I realize how much chocolate has flavored the last five centuries.
I started out by paging at leisure through Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Before long, I was delving into the themes of War and Peace.
By the end, I saw why people like my friend Hadley Fitzgerald, a California therapist of reasonable habits, would have to think a moment if the devil offered to buy their souls for chocolate. Hadley's body and being require a daily dose.
Taken to its highest finish, cacao ends up as a palet d'or, a simple square or circle of creamy dark filling — the French call that "ganache" — inside a thin, hard covering of silky smooth chocolate, the enrobage. At its best, a palet d'or shines with a rich brilliance. And it is signed by its maker in bits of real gold, which carry no taste but deliver an unmissable message: This is the good stuff.
I began to catch on when I savored two palets made with distinct types of chocolate from the French company Valrhona. One was Manjari, from Madagascar cacao; the other was from Gran Couva plantation in Trinidad. Except for cream in the ganache, both palets were pure chocolate.
The Manjari came in a rush of ripe raspberries. It peaked and then settled into a long, lush finish. Gran Couva was flowers, not fruit, a slow-moving cloud of jasmine that carried me away to some very happy place.
Nothing is simple about good chocolate. Some high practitioners prefer the term palet or. Either way, the old translation was "pillow of gold." According to the Académie Française des Chocolatiers et Confiseurs, Bernard Serarady devised the name in 1870, in the town of Moulin. But Saint-Germain-en-Laye disputes that claim. In 2004, French chocolatiers convened to argue the point.
Soon I dispensed with the fancy final product and bought bulk chocolate bits from my favorite producers in the Rhone Valley, in Tuscany, in California's Bay Area. In form, though in no other way, these reminded me of those baking chips I used to forage from my mother's pantry.
Beyond industrial candymakers with brands we all recognize, chocolatiers come in two flavors. There are those who make chocolate from beans, from the Swiss-based behemoth Barry Callebaut to such specialists as Valrhona. And there are artisans known as fondeurs — the word means "melters" — who turn this base chocolate into high art.
France bestows upon its chosen chocolatiers the aura of philosopher-kings. Pierre Hermé, a hulking bull of a man with a delicate touch, opened his small Parisian shop on the rue Bonaparte and had to hire a press agent to ward off the journalistic swarm. Robert Linxe sold his redoubtable La Maison du Chocolat in Paris to a globe-girdling French industrialist, yet eager pilgrims still come to sit at his feet.
For chocolatiers, "chocolate" implies un produir frais, a fresh and living thing that must be consumed within days. Yet that Hershey bar dug up after sixty years from Admiral Richard Byrd's cache at the South Pole is also chocolate. It was made for World War II field rations. According to army specifications, it was designed to taste "just a little better than a boiled potato." That way, soldiers would not wolf it down heedlessly. Having been frozen all those years, it was still edible. In the view of purists who disdain industrial cocoa products, it could have gone right onto a store shelf. Who'd know the difference?
And yet, purists be damned, millions still revere a Hershey bar. In a good year, the world can produce three million tons of cacao, less than half the coffee crop, but still a lot of beans. And how one likes them is a simple matter of preference.
Chocolate, in substance and in spirit, covers a lot of ground. Taken to a fine finish, it is no less nuanced than wine. If there is Ripple, there is also Rothschild.
Hernan Cortés tasted chocolate only sixteen years after Columbus sailed home. Although he noted in his letters that it just might catch on, much about cacao still remains a mystery. From bean to bonbon, the production chain is long. Few people who slave away in steamy heat all their lives to grow cacao have ever tasted chocolate. Hardly any confectioner who does the final fancywork has ever seen a cacao tree. Tropical institutes study the botany. Engineers perfect production. But for all the science around it, fine chocolate still demands a touch of alchemy, masterful sleights of hand bordering on the magical.
In its primary state, chocolate is odd-looking and often forbidding. Theobroma cacao can be an extremely picky plant. Young trees seek the dank shadows of tall tropical hardwoods; older ones like more sunlight. They also like their space. They grow only within twenty degrees of the equator but can climb up mountainsides as high as two thousand feet. And they demand a long rainy season, with deep, rich soil and temperatures that never drop below sixty degrees.
Their setting can be heart-stoppingly beautiful, under such towering monsters as Erythrina, the coral tree, with its vivid scarlet sprays of blossoms. "The cocoa woods were another thing," V. S. Naipaul once wrote of his native Trinidad. "They were like the woods of fairy tales, dark and shadowed and cool. The cocoa-pods, hanging by thick short stems, were like wax fruit in brilliant green and yellow and red and crimson and purple." (For reasons I could never determine, English usage often prefers "cocoa" for both the plant, the bean, and the drink it produces; I prefer the less-confusing approach of Romance languages: cacao and cocoa.)
By the time a graceful cacao seedling grows to maximum age, about forty years, it can be as tough and twisted as a scrub oak. Its bark is often a patchwork of greenish white lichen. If well pruned, as it must be to produce quality pods, its crown of leathery leaves — most dark green, some in rich colors — forms a canopy about eight feet above the ground. Left wild, it grows three times as tall.
Cacao starts with delicate white flowers that sprout improbably from the alligator-skin trunks and limbs. Most blossoms wither and drop away. They germinate only with the help of a midge, hardly bigger than a pinhead, that lives in surrounding undergrowth. Perhaps four or five in a hundred transform over three months into bright green oval pods, no bigger than a small pineapple. They ripen to painter's-palette shades from yellow to deep purple.
Each pod's thick, fibrous husk protects about forty beans inside. These nestle in a sticky white pulp with the wonderfully sweet taste of an Asian mangosteen. No sensible rodent or monkey misses the chance to steal a ripe pod and spend a day gnawing its way inside. This is just as well. As pods do not fall from the tree, seeds must be transported by bird, animal, or man for a new plant to grow.
Plantation workers harvest the pods with lethal-looking hooks on poles. Using machetes or clubs, they deftly open the pods, careful not to damage the beans. The gooey mass scooped from inside must ferment for days, protected from outside air, until the mucilage drains away and dries.
At first, this was done simply to dry the beans so they could be shipped long distances without spoiling. Over the years, however, growers realized that fermentation begins to unlock the flavors inside. Now this initial step is crucial to final taste. Beans are then dried of most of their remaining moisture, packed into jute bags, and dispatched to Europe and North America.
All of that, of course, is just the preliminary stage of making chocolate.
Those tiny midges are vital to the growing process, but a harrowing range of other insects and diseases can kill the trees or destroy their pods. A plague of witches'-broom beginning in 1989 all but drove Brazil out of the cacao business. Maladies with names like pod rot and swollen shoot can wreak havoc. If trees lack moisture for too long, their leaves drop off and they die.
By the time Cortés discovered the Aztecs' cacahuatl, anthropologists say, earlier inhabitants of the Americas had been drinking it for at least a thousand years. What the Spaniards found was a domesticated variety of T. cacao, known as criollo, which is native to Central and South America. Its slim oblong pods contain pure white aromatic beans that are the source of particularly prized chocolate. But it is finicky. It grows relatively few pods and only under highly specific conditions. It is susceptible to pests and disease. And it languishes in unfamiliar surroundings.
Once established in the New World, the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch brought cacao trees to their tropical colonies overseas. But, despairing of the fragile criollo, planters relied on a different variety known as forastero, which means "foreigner." It is hardier and more productive, and it travels well. Its beans are purple inside, unlike the white centers of criollo. And they lack criollo's fragrant richness.
As late as the mid-twentieth century, growers in Mexico tore out old criollos to plant forasteros that produced a much bigger — but a much inferior — crop.
Spain dominated the early cacao trade. As demand increased for chocolate in Europe, kings in Madrid kept close watch on their lucrative crop. After a century, though, their monopoly was threatened. Portuguese colonizers grew cacao in Brazil, and Dutch sailors also brought trees to Southeast Asia. In 1822, trees were transplanted from Brazil to Portugal's outpost of São Tome, off the West African coast. Soon afterward, cacao was also growing in the neighboring Spanish island colony of Fernando Po. Late in the nineteenth century, an African plantation worker smuggled seedlings from Fernando Po to the nearby British colony on the mainland, the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Trees spread to the French Ivory Coast across the border and into Nigeria.
In the early 1700s, a Caribbean calamity resulted in a third variety of T. cacao. Something that history records as the Blast devastated Trinidad. Today, no one is certain whether this was a monster hurricane or a deadly blight. Either way, it wiped out the island's criollo trees. They were replaced with the hybrid trinitario, which has since found its way around the equator.
A fourth variety, nacional, was developed in Ecuador, with a distinctive spicy flavor named for the region where it grows, Arriba. It is, essentially, a better sort of forastero.
During the first part of the twentieth century, as a new industry fed a fast-growing chocolate craze, England and France muscled ahead in the world cacao market with their African fosasrero. Today, 70 percent of the world's beans come from Africa. Ivory Coast alone produces nearly half of the global crop — the worse half.
Worldwide, about 15 million acres are planted in cacao. And 90 percent of it is grown by families, perhaps with a few hired hands, on holdings of less than twelve acres.
Pure criollo goes into perhaps I percent of all chocolate, and trinitario beans account for about 10 percent. Like vintners and olive-oil makers, chocolatiers have started to examine the raw material they had taken for granted over generations. With a great chocolate awakening that coincided with the turn of the millennium, single varietals were suddenly all the rage. And the most prized was the vanishing criollo.
In Trinidad, a gene bank protects some of the oldest forms of T. cacao. And some experiments are under way. With Venezuelan government aid, botanists are trying to revive the elusive rich taste that once flavored so much of the Americas. A plantation south of Lake Maracaibo that started with three hundred trees planted late in the 1990s may eventually help bring back a glorious lost flavor.
Archeologists say that the Olmecs, in what is now Mexico, drank chocolate a thousand years before Christ. Only a limited amount has been learned about these enigmatic early people who left behind huge stone gods with high domed foreheads, sad eyes, and fleshy lips. Stunning jade masks and other archeological evidence suggest a complex civilization. Nothing is known about what they liked for breakfast. But, like other Mesoamerican Indians, they must have loved to suck the sweet pulp from ripe cacao pods.
The highly cultured Mayans were the first to make a sacred drink of cacao. They roasted and ground the beans, mixing the powder with chilies, herbs, and wild honey. Cacao was at the top of the list when tribute was offered to their rulers. It went into the tombs of kings. By the time Columbus arrived, cacao beans were the coin of the realm. They were used for trade between the Maya and the Aztecs who settled to the north, in central Mexico, in the thirteenth century.
The beans were money that grew on trees, which explains why those Indians at Guanaja were loath to lose any in the bottom of their canoe. Centuries on, that seems like a noble concept. How can you hoard coins that so quickly dry up and crumble away?
Among tribes in Nicaragua, Francisco Oviedo y Valdés reported, a rabbit cost ten beans and a slave was worth one hundred. Dalliance with a prostitute cost eight to ten of the shriveled edible coins; this was negotiable. The currency system was based on 20. Each four hundred beans were a Zontle. Twenty of those made a xiquipil. And so on.
By the time Cortés arrived, the Aztecs had elevated their cacahuatl to holiness. The drink was made with complex blends that sometimes added cornmeal to the fiery chilies and aromatic spices. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the mildly reliable chronicler of the Conquista, reported that the emperor Montezuma faced his harem of two hundred wives only after drinking fifty chalices of spiced cacao. The supposed aphrodisiac effect of the Aztecs' chili-laced chocolate inflamed the Spanish imagination.
Excerpted from Chocolate by Mort Rosenblum. Copyright © 2005 Mort Rosenblum. Excerpted by permission of North Point Press.
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Meet the Author
Mort Rosenblum was a special correspondent to the Associated Press and an editor of the International Herald Tribune. He is the author of, most recently, A Goose in Toulouse and Olives (both FSG). He lives in Paris, France.
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