Guest Author - Deborah Markus
We all know the answer to that, of course. Chocolate is the only food we can imagine subsisting entirely on, and quite happily.
All right, we know it's more than that. It's a plant product, the child of the cacao tree. But that barely begins to describe the miracle that is chocolate.
For instance, you wouldn't be savoring that darkly luxuriant bar that manages to be at once sweet and just a little harsh if it weren't for a tiny insect called a midge. These flying bugs pollinate the blossoms of the cacao tree, allowing cacao pods the size and shape of footballs to burst forth. These pods are full of seeds, and these seeds can, with a great deal of work, care, and factory equipment, be persuaded to become chocolate as we know it.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. A cacao tree takes several years to mature, and it can only grow near the equator. Too far north or south and the plant will refuse to thrive.
The young trees flourish most readily under the protective shade of taller trees -- usually mango, banana, or rubber trees. Eventually, they can reach a height of thirty feet or more.
The trees are lovely when they reach maturity at last and put forth thousands of tiny, five-petaled, delicate white blossoms. Out of all these flowers, only about twenty or thirty per tree will develop into cacao pods, which in turn contain about forty cocoa beans each.
The seeds of the pods are embedded in a sweet, white pulp that can be (and often is) eaten and enjoyed by humans, but tastes nothing like chocolate. The seeds themselves are so bitter until treated that one can only marvel at the bravery of whoever first decided to give these a chance to be food.
Cacao pods are harvested twice a year. Unripe pods are a tentative shade of green; the ripe ones are a defiant purple. The beans and pulp are scraped out of the ripe pods and left for several days in the sun to ferment.
The beans are then spread out on drying tables and left in the open air to dry. This takes several more days. By the end of this process, the cacao beans look like pebbles, or almonds. They are earth-toned and dull. It takes roasting to give them that dark, luxuriant color that says "chocolate" to us.
But even after roasting -- which takes a mere ten minutes to half an hour -- they're still a long way from being our favorite treat. Just as you would crack open a walnut to get to the edible nutmeat, the beans are now shelled, leaving only the nibs.
These can be eaten as is. In fact, they've become quite popular, and can be purchased online or in health food stores. But be warned: nibs taste something like chocolate as we know it, but are entirely without sweetness. Crunching a cacao nib is a great way to wake yourself up completely first thing in the morning, but don't expect it to taste like a chocolate chip. Even the darkest of dark chocolate needs some sugar.
But we're jumping ahead again. The cacao nibs are crushed to produce a brown paste called chocolate liquor (sometimes called chocolate mass). This liquor, which, contrary to its name, contains no alcohol, is mixed with cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and possibly milk or milkfat solids.
And still it's not chocolate yet. After being thoroughly mixed and blended, the chocolate goes through a process known as conching. This is critical to achieving smooth chocolate. To conch chocolate, you must stir it constantly for hours or days, all the while keeping it at a warm temperature.
Now the chocolate is tempered. Tempering gives it its glossy sheen and distinctive chocolate snap. During tempering, the chocolate mixture is kept in constant motion and warmed to above 92 or 93 degrees and then cooled several times. This is the most touchy part of the chocolate-making process, and requires great care.
The resulting chocolate goo needs only to be poured into molds, allowed to harden and packaged. It's finally ready to be purchased by eager consumers.
The next time you buy a bar, take a moment to ponder exactly what it is you're about to devour. You might want to pick up an extra bar, just to give yourself time for due consideration.