About Chocolate

sorry, this is not finished yet. future attractions include a brief history of chocolate as we know it, why "white chocolate" is a blasphemy (imho, of course), and a short video about cocoa pods.

History of Chocolate | Chocolate Production | Chocolate Glossary

History of Chocolate

Sorry, but i haven't written a real history yet. in short: the ancient mayas and aztecs beat cocoa beans into a pulp and made a bitter frothy chocolate drink out of them. the europeans came over, took some cocoa beans back, and went ga-ga when they tried this drink with some sugar in it. chocolate was enjoyed by european high society in this fairly unrefined liquid form for quite some time. over time, it became more common, cheaper, and more people started drinking it. eventually somebody figured out how to make solid chocolate candy out of it. the hershey family made gobs of money this way, and in the process got the commoners hooked on chocolate. the rest, as they say, is history.

Chocolate Production

Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, and cocoa beans come from the equatorial zones of South America (within 20 degrees of the equator). Cocoa is also grown in Africa, having been imported to that continent a long time ago. Outside of equatorial Africa and South America, the only place I know of that Cocoa is grown is in the Hawaiian Islands. I had the fortune to visit a small cocoa plantation on the Big Island of Hawaii; I have put together a short video (Running time 2:07, file size 1096k) from pictures taken there that shows the stages of maturation of the cocoa pod.

Cocoa beans from different parts of the world do taste slightly different and produce slightly different chocolate. I have not experienced this first hand, however, nor do I make any claim to being able to tell where the beans came from in the chocolates I eat.

Cocoa beans grow in pods that sprout off of the trunk and branches of cocoa trees. The pods are about the size of a football (an oblong American football, not a soccer ball) but are less pointed at the ends. The pods start out green and turn orange when they're ripe. When the pods are ripe, harvesters travel through the cocoa orchards with machetes and hack the pods gently off of the trees. Cocoa trees produce flowers all the time, so a mature cocoa tree will have flowers as well as pods in various stages of growth. Harvesting the pods happens all year.

The pods are taken to a processing house, where they are split open and the cocoa beans are removed. Pods can contain upwards of 50 cocoa beans each. Fresh, raw cocoa beans are not brown at all, nor do they taste at all like the sweet chocolate they will eventually produce. They're a milky white color, and are very bitter.

Now the beans are fermented. They are placed in large, shallow, heated trays. If the climate is right, they may simply be heated by the sun. Workers come along periodically and stir them up so that all of the beans come out equally fermented. During fermentation is when the beans turn brown. This takes five days or so.

The beans are now ready to be processed into the forms of chocolate we know and love. This, of course, means that they are first shipped to various parts of the world where most chocolate candies come from. Europe and North America account for most of the chocolate production in the world. The Hershey Foods Corporation uses millions of pounds of cocoa beans annually.

The first thing that commercial chocolate manufacturers do with cocoa beans is dry roast them. This develops the color and flavor of the beans to what our modern palates expect from chocolate. The outer shell of the beans is removed, and the inner cocoa bean meat is broken into small pieces called "cocoa nibs."

Cocoa nibs consist of two important components, cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The cocoa butter is essentially fat, and the cocoa solids are essentially coarse cocoa powder. Separating the two is critical in producing smooth, high quality chocolate candy. After all, you can't mix crumbled up cocoa beans with some sugar, press the mixture into a bar, and call it chocolate.

There are two processes for getting the cocoa butter out of the cocoa solids. In the first, the cocoa nibs are converted into a non-alcoholic liquid called cocoa liquor. The liquor is then subjected to high pressure in a press to squeeze the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids. What remains is a cake of solid cocoa. In the second process, the cocoa nibs are pressed directly to separate the two components. This process, however, does not do as good a job as the first and exists today as just a footnote in the history of chocolate production.

The cocoa butter is further refined for later use in chocolate production, where it is added back to the refined cocoa powder. Some cocoa butter also finds its way to the cosmetics industry. Cocoa butter has the interesting property that it melts at human body temperature, which makes it a very useful base for cosmetics, particularly lipstick. The other option for cosmetic manufacturers is petroleum-based waxes, which typically melt at much higher temperatures.

After pressing, the cocoa solids are taken from the cocoa press and ground to a fine powder. If the cocoa powder is destined to be made into chocolate candy, it is then combined with other ingredients. Dark, bittersweet chocolates are made by adding cocoa butter and sugar, at a minimum. Milk chocolates add milk as well. Nearly all chocolates have some emulsifier (usually soy lecithin) to help the ingredients blend, and vanilla.

The ingredients are mixed under heat into molten chocolate. This goes into huge vats where it is "conched". To conch the chocolate, there are large smooth granite rollers in the vats that keep the mixture stirred up and further grinds the cocoa powder into extremely small bits. Some chocolate production plants go on to use smoother steel rollers which give their chocolate a very smooth, velvety feel. The longer the chocolate is conched the smoother it becomes. Good chocolates are often conched for several days straight, while cheap mass produced chocolates may be conched for as little as 12 hours.

Finally, the chocolate is poured into molds, and allowed to cool. It is then wrapped, shipped and sold for us all to enjoy.

Chocolate Glossary

Coverture: chocolate that is used in candy making for covering other stuff. It sets up into fairly brittle chocolate. You often find it as the chocolate that surrounds chocolate-covered fruits or as the shell of fancy filled chocolates.

Ganache: a thick, extremely rich chocolate spread. You often find it between the layers of gourmet chocolate cakes. You make ganache by pouring hot cream over chopped up chocolate, and whipping the mixture until the chocolate melts and the whole thing becomes thick and stiff.