Lifted, in the interests of compulsive chocoholics the world over, from the New Scientist. Halloween is now, of course, in the past for this year. This article could be now read as a call to continue consuming chocolate until NEXT Halloween.
With Halloween upon us, youngsters and adults alike will enjoy a night of regret-free chocolate bingeing. But how much do you really know about the sweet substance? If you’re Stefan Bernhard, you can safely say you’ve made a lifetime study of the elixir of the gods.
At a recent meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective(ECC) at New York University, Bernhard, professor of chemistry at Princeton, led a group of scholars, scientists, chefs, chocolatiers, food historians, journalists, performance artists, and foodies through the intricacies of chocolate production. He covered everything from chocolate’s unique chemical properties to the ways in which those properties affect its manufacture.
Bernhard spent three teenage years as an intern at Suchard-Tobler in Bern, Switzerland and has never lost his interest in chocolate. It came in handy when he was asked to teach a freshman seminar at Princeton which he titled The Chemistry of Chocolate. It was, he says, a good way to introduce liberal arts students to science. He gave the ECC a distillation of that semester’s course.
The key to chocolate’s taste is an alkaloid called theobromine (theobromine translates as food of the gods, which is what the Aztecs believed it to be). Chocolate contains some fifty molecules that interact to influence tongue-bound taste receptors. Bernhard put up a slide showing all fifty molecules. Pointing to one of them – described as having a buttery, popcorn-like taste – he said, “When you go to the movies and order buttered popcorn, you think you’re getting butter but you’re not, you’re getting some kind of oil infused with this molecule.” Grinning he added, “Which is why chemists should be kept away from our food.”
Chocolate has some similarities to coffee; the cacao tree, like coffee trees, thrive in the shade of larger, taller trees in the rain forest. Three varieties of cacao trees exist: criollo, nearly extinct but the most desirable, forastero, which is less rare, and trinitario, which resulted from a crossing of the two others and is now the most commonly grown. Forastero and trinitario grow in Africa which supplies large manufacturers such as Hershey and Mars.
Cacao was first “domesticated” by the Olmec, ancient inhabitants of current-day Mexico, who passed down the knowledge to the Mayan and the Mayan to the Aztecs. The smallish tree now grows in an equatorial belt around the globe. These days good chocolate is produced in countries like Madagascar and New Guinea as well as in the Central American and Caribbean countries where it originated.
Bernhard pointed out that serious chocolate lovers covet “premier cru,” which is a term adopted for plantation-specific chocolate. He shared with his audience three small squares of dark chocolate, each distinctively wrapped and each from a specific plantation in a different locale. One chocolate was from Madagascar, one from New Guinea, and one from the island of Sao Tome off the west coast of Africa. Each was distinctive in flavor, and all were definitely delicious. The one from Madagascar was much lighter in tone, less complex than the other two. He led us through the harvesting of the cacao pods, large football-shaped fruits that grow directly on the trunk of the tree. How the cacao seeds are dried and roasted determines the quality of the chocolate that will be made from them, Bernhard explained. The seeds, unlike coffee beans, vary in size, and this makes good chocolate all the more difficult to produce. The seeds must be dried slowly in shade. If not, the chocolate may be gritty and bitter. The dried beans are then bagged for shipment since the countries where cacao is grown tend not to have the sophisticated machinery necessary to churn out the smooth, seductive product we expect.
After the beans are roasted, most often in the same kind of roaster used for coffee beans, they are ground and conched. The word conche comes from the Spanish for shell; the conching machine is shaped like an open shell in which the chocolate is stirred round and round to get rid of less desirable flavors. Bernhard explains that the word “goat” is often used by chocolate manufacturers in describing some of the off flavors that need to be eliminated.
Once the chocolate is goat-free it’s ready for the melangeur. This machine blends the cocoa powder, cocoa butter and sugar so that a smooth, even chocolate product results. It’s difficult to get the cocoa butter to evenly coat the sugar particles and the chocolate particles so that they don’t clump together and yield uneven flavors and textures. The amount of cocoa powder added at this point determines the strength of the dark chocolate (64-70% cocoa powder yields a smooth, rich, complex dark chocolate). This is also where the milk powder can be added to make milk chocolate. Milk chocolate is typically favored by Americans, and dark chocolate by Europeans, Bernhard explained, though dark is gaining ground here.
Bernhard also said that to take advantage of the antioxidants present in chocolate, you need to consume dark, not milk, chocolate as the proteins in milk interfere with the human body’s ability to absorb the antioxidants.
White chocolate’s a whole different story. Illustrating the composition of white chocolate on a slide, Bernhard said what you are eating is cocoa butter, which is the fat, without any of the chocolate flavors, loaded down with powdered milk and sugar. He said it has the same health benefits as eating lard, eliciting a lot of “Eeeews” from his audience.