As with our other products, we seek out artisan producers and we taste... and we taste again - especially in the case of chocolate. We import chocolate from several producers including Maglio, Pralus, Durand and Venchi. Maglio, Durand and Venchi purchase cocoa liquor and blend it with sugar, cocoa butter, emulsifier (soy lecithin) and sometimes vanilla. to create a variety of specialty chocolate bars. Pralus works with raw cacao beans and controls the process from roasting, winnowing and grinding to the finished single-origin bars you find on our shelves. The pride of our chocolate selection is the American bean-to-bar producers who work in a fashion similar to Pralus but on a much smaller scale. We work with Rogue, Mast Brothers, Askinosie, Taza, Fine & Raw, Patric and Amano and we are perpetually searching for other exceptional artisans.
When you buy chocolate it helps to know a bit about where it comes from and what went into making it. In this section we provide a bit of background that we have found helpful in our appreciation of chocolate. So bite into that piece of Maglio Ecuador, Pralus Madagascar or Taza 80% and enjoy!
A Short History of Cocoa and its production
The earliest evidence suggests that the cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao) originated in the Amazon or Orinoco basin. It is believed that the Olmec civilization of mesoamerica was the first to utilize cacao beans both as a form of currency and as a food product. The Aztecs and Mayans are more often referred to when the origin of cacao is discussed because of the colorful mythology of Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent god who was believed to have brought the cacao plant to earth from Paradise. Quetzalcoatl is also credited with teaching the Aztecs to ferment, roast and grind the cacao beans to then be mixed with water and chile and in some cases achiote (annato) to produce a bitter drink known as or xocalatl (translated as bitter liquid).
Columbus is said to have brought some cacao beans back from his fourth voyage to the Americas, but nobody paid much attention to them amongst his other finds. The Spanish explorer Cortez was introduced to cacao when he visited Montezuma and saw that the drink was considered a potent stimulant and in some cases an aphrodisiac. Xocalatl is reputed to have been the only beverage that Montezuma consumed - up to 50 gold goblets full each day and especially prior to joining his harem. In 1528, Cortez brought the cacao beans back to Spain but its uses were limited until later that century when the drink was used primarily for what were seen as its medicinal properties. Eventually wealthy Spaniards caught on and started preparing their cocoa drink with cane sugar, cinnamon and vanilla to make it more drinkable for their European palates.
The more widespread appreciation of the drink is attributed to an Italian traveller named Antonio Carletti who in 1606 fell in love with the wonderful concoction and introduced it to his Italian brethren and beyond teaching the techniques for roasting and grinding the beans as he went.
Traces of this nearly magical cocoa have remained in the scientific name that the Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus gave to the plant when developing a binomial system for classifying living organisms. Theobroma cacao maintains the mesoamerican roots of the plant with the word cacao while giving it a place of honor as Theobroma which, in Latin, means "food of the gods"
In the 18th and 19th centuries industrialization took hold of the industry and many advancements in production techniques resulted. In 1828 Coenraad Van Houten a Dutch chemist developed a method of removing the cocoa butter from the cacao liquor and producing a fine powder that could be made into a pressed cake. He further added alkaline salts to the powder to make it easier to dissolve in warm water. This 'dutching' process also had the benefit of creating a cocoa of deeper color and of less bitter flavor. Further developments such as Rudolphe Lindt's conching machine, the cholocate bar, milk chocolate and the filled bon-bon transformed chocolate into a more accessible (and affordable) product which soon developed even more widespread appeal.
The Varieties of Cocoa
One might be tempted to think that cacao is cacao but, as with many fine foods, there is much more beneath the surface. Indeed, it starts out easily enough with just one species: Theobroma Cacao. From there, we have two sub-species: Criollo and Forastero and one hybrid sub-species called Trinitario each of which has distinct qualitative (and quantitative) characteristics regarding cultivation, production, aroma, texture and taste.
This is the cocoa tree from Maya known as the legendary tree found originally in the New World by the Spaniards from Cortez who gave it the name of “Creola”. The Europeans called it Caracca. This tree produces the finest cocoa, with a delicate taste, a rich and not very bitter flavour. The tree is very delicate, it gives a lower production and cultivation is difficult. This cocoa is produced in limited quantities and represents 5% - 10% of the world's production.
In Spanish this means “foreigner”. It originates from the high Amazon. It is stronger than the Criollo, it grows more quickly and produces a higher quantity of fruit and as a result is the preferred industrial cacao variety. It represents 80% of the worlds production. The arriba or nacional varieties found in Equador are highly prized.
This hybrid cacao is a cross between Criollo and a Forestero. Originally from La Trinidad, Venezuela from which this sub-species takes its name. The coastal plantations of Venezuela (Chuao being the first in the Americas) originally cultivated only the Criollo variety but in the early 1700s a cyclone ruined most of the important plantations. After this the inhabitants started cultivating the Forestero imported from the valley of Orinoco and since some of the original Criollo trees had survived, a natural hybrid came about. Like all hybrids it is very resistant. It represents today 10% - 15% of the worlds production. Its cocoa has the highest fat contents.
Beyond species and sub-species are the varieties of the cacao plant. there are literally thousands of varieties such as the highly regarded Criollo Porcelana or Forastero Arriba. You can also consider the region in which the cacao is produced as a factor in its characteristics. Due to the highly distributed nature of cacao processing and the fact that most chocolates are blends of different sub-species and perhaps numerous varieties, chocolate is not as terroir-driven as an appellation-controlled wine, but ultimately, where the cacao is grown does play a role in the quality of the chocolate.
Cultivation and Processing
The cocoa plant is one of the most difficult to cultivate as it does not produce fruit outside lattitudes between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer (±15 ° latitude). From 100 flowers it is calculated that only about 10 or 15 actually remain on the plant. The plant will naturally grow in shady conditions such as dense forests. Cultivation of the plant is difficult due to the fragile nature of its flowers and in order to protect the flowers from the tropical wind, planters put up protective barriers known as Sombreamento, built with banana plants or a particular type of yellow acacia.
Apart from a natural movement of the cocoa culture in Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil, the cocoa trade brought a proliferation of plantations to the Caribbean islands, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Java, Sumatra as well as the Philippines, Ceylon and Indonesia.
The cacao tree fruit is a huge berry called cacao pod, usually melon-shaped 5 to 12 inches long and 3 to 5 inches wide. The cacao pod contains 30 to 40 seeds. It takes 20 to 25 pods to get 2 pounds of cocoa. Once the tree reaches maturity (5 - 10 years), fruit pods will sprout from its trunk and branches. The golden-red to purple fruit pods turn brown at maturity, at which time they are split open and the insides scooped out. Each pod generally produces 20 to 40 almond-shaped cacao beans.
After the cacao beans are removed from the fruit, they undergo a 5-6 day long fermentation, a process that reduces their bitterness and helps develop their heady aroma. After they are dried for 1-2 weeks, the beans are ready to be cleaned, graded, packed, and shipped for processing into chocolate products.
Once the beans are selected, they are roasted and shelled to obtain the center cacao kernel. The kernels are then crushed into smaller bits called nibs. To transform the cacao nibs into the thick, dark-brown paste called chocolate liquor, they are ground between large heated rollers in high-speed mills.
Chocolate liquor is the base from which all chocolate products are made. Pure chocolate liquor, which contains 53 to 55 percent cocoa butter, is unsweetened and is typically compressed into blocks or squares and is sold as a base for further processing by blending it with sugar and other chocolates to produce the sweetened chocolate bars we know.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is chocolate bloom?
Chocolate bloom or fat bloom is the white layer that sometimes forms on chocolate when some of the cocoa butter has separated causing it to rise to the surface of the chocolate. This happens when the chocolate is stored in too humid or too warm a temperature. The chocolate can still be used as it only minimally affects the taste and texture. It can be easily removed by scratching away the thin layer of white that has formed.
Does chocolate have a lot of caffeine?
Chocolate does not have a high concentration of Theo-bromine, it contains only 20 milligrams per 100 g of product (1/5th of the caffeine present in a cup of espresso coffee). Here are some comparative levels of caffeine in one cup of each product:
- espresso coffee: 45mg - 100mg
- brewed 60mg - 120mg
- instant coffee: 65mg
- black tea: 45mg
- green tea: 20mg
- white tea: 10mg
- dark chocolate: 20mg
- milk chocolate: 6mg
- Coca Cola: 35mg
If you feel a boost of energy or a change in mood, it might be attributed to a combination of the caffeine and the Theo Bromine found in chocolate. It is worth noting here that while these two can act as stimulants to the human consumer, they can be deadly to smaller animals if consumed in large amounts.
In addition to the caffeine and theo bromine, studies have shown that consuming chocolate induces seratonin production in the brain which is a nuerotransmitters involved in mood elevation.
Does chocolate raise or lower cholesterol levels?
Chocolate is extracted from cocoa beans which contain cocoa butter but no cholesterol. Only milk chocolate has a cholesterol content of approx. 23 mg per 100 g of product as the result of the addition of the milk ingredient. Chocolate contains conjugated lionoleic acid also known as CLA which is a trans fatty acid that is believed to fight cancer. Studies (funded by Hershey's and Nestle mind you) have shown that chocolate consumption can actually lower the level of LDL (bad cholesterol). However, at this time, you'd have to eat a lot of chocolate in order to see any of these affects and the other affects resulting from consuming so much might outweigh any benefit.
Does Chocolate Cause tooth decay?
Not only does chocolate not cause tooth decay, but it contains an anti-bacterial enzyme which helps to prevent plaque formation. Tooth decay is caused by the sugar added to the cocoa.
What's the difference between Praline and Gianduja?
Gianduja is a variant of praline which comes from the Piedmont region of Italy. But on either side of the Alps the techniques are different. The "classic" praline is prepared using sugar syrup and almonds that are caramelised together before grinding to the fineness required; gianduja is prepared using hazelnuts, sometimes almonds, grilled and peeled and then mixed with caster sugar before being ground to a fine paste to which chocolate is then added.