Chocolate: how to choose the best is a short guide on the history of a very popular product all over the world. A useful guide for a more informed and not casual purchase.
Cocoa: a centuries-old history
The Maya called it “cacauatl” and consumed it mixed with water and spices like pepper or cloves, in a drink known as “xocolatl” (“bitter water”).
The Aztecs conquered the Maya territory and they too exploited this precious re source.
Officially, Christopher Columbus was the first Westerner to taste the cocoa drink.
In Latin American countries, cocoa cultivation was widespread especially in Mexico, in the hottest area of the country. The most valuable cocoa were those of the provinces of Tabasco and Soconusco or Xoconocho, because of their large, good quality oil seeds.
At that time, the so-called “Azteca Xocoatl” drink was appreciated for its bitter taste and high stimulating value.
When the Spanish Conquistatores discovered this drink they highlighted its high invigorating power. Hernán Cortés, in his letters to Carlos V, wrote that “a cup of this indigenous drink”, supports the forces of a soldier during a day’s walking.
The Mexican nobles cooked cocoa with water and, to soften it, they added wild honey or sweet maple juice, flavored with a little vanilla.
Cocoa was a real currency, which was used to buy valuable goods.
Also for this reason, the Spaniards were quick to send their Mexican cocoa home since the 16th century. Thus, even in Spain, it began to be used as a fortifying drink. Cocoa was enjoyed almost a century only in the narrow circle of the Spanish court and then slowly expanded into the other courts of Europe.
The success of this drink in Europe was such as to start a cultivation activity.
The Spaniards tried, with little success, to cultivate cocoa in the current Haiti and Dominican Republic. In 1635, they tried again in Ecuador with greater luck.
In the following centuries the African colonies of Spain began cultivation successfully. Today, 70% of the cocoa consumed in the world comes from West Africa (Ivory Coast, Ghana …).
The cocoa varieties:
Criollo is the most noble variety of cocoa, difficult to grow because it is not resistant to diseases. This is why it is a very rare cocoa. The cocoa beans of this variety are rich in naturally occurring aromas; creaminess and roundness at the gustatory level. It is cultivated in Venezuela, Colombia and Peru.
Forastero is a cocoa of fair quality, although the aroma is less intense and not particularly refined. For this reason, natural flavors and dried fruit are added, in order to change the olfactory and gustatory perceptions of the product, making it more pleasant. If you read the labels of many chocolate bars, you notice in addition to the cocoa paste, the presence of cocoa butter, natural flavors and sugar, if the chocolate does not have a very high percentage of cocoa (85% up). The plant is very productive and resistant, so it is the most present on the market. The main producing countries are Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
From the refinement of Criollo and the high yield of the Forastero comes the Trinitario cocoa, which represents about 8% of the world’s harvest. It is very requested by master chocolatiers all over the world for its refined taste with aromatic notes similar to those of Criollo.
The major producing countries of this variety are Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, Tanzania and Madagascar.
Fermentation is the phase following the harvest of the fruit. The beans and the whitish pulp are extracted from the cabosside and fermented for 3 to 8 days to activate the development of the intrinsic aromas. After, it follows the drying phase that takes place by spreading the fava beans outdoors under the sun or in artificial dryers to speed up the process. The purpose is to limit the acidity from an organoleptic point of view. At this point, the beans will be divided by size and inside jute bags (breathable material, resistant and non-polluting) will start for new processes of transformation.
If cocoa has undergone an incorrect fermentation, it is toasted at higher temperatures to mask its aromatic defects (low quality cocoa). On the contrary, if the starting raw material is of high quality, a lower temperature roasting reduces the present microbial flora, keeping intact all the sensorial characteristics of the original product. From this moment, the cocoa bean, deprived of its shell, becomes edible and can be tasted in its entirety as true connoisseurs.
The most important part of the process comes with the transformation of the grain into liquer. There are several refining machinery, the most valuable are those that preserve the aromatic properties of quality beans through the crushing of powdered beans at low temperatures (45-50° C).
The quality chocolate is obtained only from the processing of cocoa paste, to which can be added brown sugar to obtain the various percentages of dark chocolate. Emulsifiers, artificial flavors and cocoa butter (if not naturally present in the bean) reduce its quality.
Dark chocolate (at least 70%), without refined sugars and vegetable fats, is very rich in polyphenols, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory. It protects cells from oxidative stress and keeps the walls of blood vessels elastic.