The cocoa tree is a native of the Amazon region and Central America.
The Latin name ‘'Theobroma Cacao' means food of the gods and the Mayans revered it as such. The word chocolate comes from a Mayan word xocoatl which literally translates as ‘bitter water'. The special drink made from the crushed cocoa bean (mixed with water, vanilla bean and chili peppers!) was reserved for the Mayan rulers and was initially only drunk at special ceremonies. The beans themselves were used as currency, and images of the bean pod can be found in their art work. The Aztecs believed in the special powers of wisdom, health and power of the cocoa bean.
The Spanish brought the cocoa bean back from their American travels, and it quickly became a popular but expensive drink in Spain and later throughout Europe, where it was mixed with sugar and honey for a beverage more similar to what we drink today.
The explorer Cortez (pictured, with the Aztec King Moctezuma, a great cocoa lover) started the first cocoa plantation in Mexico - with the idea of growing money......
With the introduction of chocolate to France in the mid-17th century, a chocolate craze was started in that country, supported by its proclaimed aphrodisiacal powers.
The Belgians perfected the art of refining chocolate, quickly followed by the Swiss, and in the 1730s chocolate is finally mass-produced, making it accessible to all. The Swiss are credited with putting the first milk into chocolate for the milder flavor beloved by many. They also developed the ‘conching' method whereby the chocolate mixture is heated and rolled for 72 hours, making it extremely smooth.
In the second World War the nutritional value of chocolate was recognized and bars of chocolate became a part of Army Rations. Many European children remember the taste of the bars of chocolate they were given by the Allied troops!
The plant and the fruit
As said, the plant is a native of the Amazon region, but today 70% of all commercial cocoa is grown in Africa with the Ivory Coast taking the lion's share. However, The Netherlands is the largest processor of cacao, followed by the US.
The trees, which in the wild can grow to 50 feet tall, produce pods appr. the size of a man's hand, each of which contains between 30-50 seeds encased in a sweet pulp. The long-lived tree can produce a crop for 75 years or more.
After harvesting, the seeds - still with the pulp attached - are spread out on grates for several days. During this time a process known as ‘sweating' takes place, the pulp ferments, liquefies and drops away from the beans. This is an important process to ensure a good flavor in the cocoa. The beans are then dried, often in the sun, and prepared for shipment.
About 300 beans are needed to make a pound of chocolate. In the factory, the beans are washed, roasted, then cracked and hulled (a process known as ‘winnowing'). The remaining pieces of cocoa bean are then ground and pressed into a paste, after which sugar and other flavorings are added, before it is ‘conched' and then ‘tempered' in order to make a smooth, delicious chocolate. Alternatively, the paste is separated into cocoa powder and cocoa butter, each of which has their own use.
Chocolate commonly comes in dark, milk and white varieties, with the white containing cocoa butter only, with other flavorings added.
Enjoying chocolate and Health Benefits
Much has been written about the supposed aphrodisiacal qualities of chocolate. Fact is that due to its high melting point, the ‘melting in the mouth' sensation is extremely pleasurable. A gift of chocolate is considered an expression of passion or affection.
There are claims that chocolate will lower blood pressure and cholesterol and protect the heart. This has resulted in a recent sharp increase in consumption of specifically dark chocolate. The milk fats and sugar in other types of chocolate pretty much negate cocoa's health benefits. Theobromine, the active ingredient in chocolate, is a mild stimulant and accounts for its mood-elevating properties. Yes, eating chocolate does make you feel better!
On the downside, some people have allergic reactions and chocolate is a known trigger for migraines. It is also said to be toxic to dogs and horses.
And finally - a recipe
An article about chocolate would not be complete without a recipe. Here is my favorite recipe for chocolate mousse. Enjoy!
12 oz of a good quality dark chocolate (use sweeter or milk chocolate for a milder flavor)
1 stick unsalted butter
8 eggs, separated
3 tbsp brandy or Grand Marnier
1 cup whipping cream
1 tbsp sugar
Melt the chocolate together with the butter in a double boiler (‘au bain marie'), let cool slightly and stir in the egg yolks and the brandy or liqueur.
Whip the eggwhites until stiff and fold into the chocolate mixture. Pour in individual glasses and chill.
Before serving, whip the cream with the sugar and place a spoonful on top of the mousse. Garnish with a cherry or a chocolate curl if you like.
RICH AND YUMMY.
(thanks to critterologist for letting me use her picture of a cocoa pod)
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