Real chocolate is a heavenly food. Break off a piece. Close your eyes and slowly let it melt on the tongue to taste its many nuanced flavours. Please don’t just chew it. Real chocolate is made from a hyper-nutritious seed, roasted to bring out its flavours, ground to a fine paste, and finally sweetened with sugars, preferably unrefined from the juice of sugar cane, or the nectar from the coconut flower. The cacao seed is said to contain the secret to longevity, happiness and good sex. It is a veritable superfood.
In fact, when the father of modern plant taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, searched for a botanical name to describe the fruit tree from which chocolate is derived, he found that only a superlative would suffice: theobroma cacao means food of the gods. The ancient Mayas had called the shade-grown rainforest tree “kakaw” and arguably developed the first-ever recipe to make chocolate. They discovered how to soften the bitterness of the cacao seed (or bean, by its shape) through fermentation and drying. However, they still preferred to drink chocolate rather than eat it, since water would filter the heavier particles in the stone-ground paste and dilute any remaining astringent flavours that are present in the seed to defend it from being eaten.
It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that machines could be built powerful enough to crush cacao seeds mechanically. With such presses, cacao and cacao butter, contained in the seed in equal measures, could be refined and emulsified to a degree that was palatable and chewy. In this way, the finest and purest of chocolates could be made, and this nearly 200-year-old process is now exciting a new generation of real chocolate-makers and consumers.
However, this is not how most chocolate is made. The fast-growing chocolate industry of the 20th century settled for a more profitable, predictable and homogenous technique in which the fat is extracted from the seed to separate the cacao butter and cacao powder. Once broken down into its components, chocolate can be reconstituted by mixing the bitter cacao powder with refined beet sugar to create a cheap, replicable taste profile sold as ‘drinking chocolate’. To reduce costs, the precious cacao butter is often part or wholly replaced with milk fat, other plant fats, and fillers like caramel.
This process lies behind a global industry for chocolate products that have assumed a powerful position in our imagination, largely associated with happiness, generosity and luxury.
But in spite of the myths and marketing, chocolate’s magic as delicious, nutritious and potent food got lost along the way. Our mothers were right to keep those super-sweet snacks containing chocolate as rare treats rather than considering them as food. And we now know that the story does not end with the dubious nature of chocolate in its garish packaging; behind the scenes lies an unsavoury and unsustainable mix of social exploitation of the cacao producing farmers and mindless degradation of tropical forests and soils, let alone the nutrient-poor cheap calories of processed chocolate bars.
Happily, over the course of only a few years, a new culture of real chocolate has retraced its roots back to the heavenly rainforest tree and the simple, pure traditions of the ancient cacao cultures. The best of these chocolate makers know the terroir of their cacao plantations as intimately as a top winemaker would, and are able to create a food that is pure and yet sparkles in texture and flavours more complex than wine. Since land and farming practices are once again the main criteria for the quality and taste of chocolate, respect for origins and direct purchase have become currencies in the new real chocolate trade. For the planet, palate and body, the new chocolate culture promotes a more meaningful and pleasurable way of enjoying chocolate: less really is more.