Like coffee, chocolate’s quality is dictated by the type of bean used and the skill of the roaster. Like grapes, varieties of cocoa beans can be mixed to achieve certain flavor profiles, nuances can be coaxed out during processing and their character can vary from year to year, enough so that exacting followers make their annual choices based not on manufacturer but on bean.


It’s what you’ll find on your pillow in a fine hotel, a gift that carries a special message (and sometimes strings), a real decadent treat, the preferred gesture of Valentine’s Day (on which Americans will buy some 36 million boxes of chocolate!) and much more.




First, a quick history lesson. The Mayans and possibly others before them in present-day Central America were the first known people to crush the beans from the cacao tree and make a beverage—bitter and probably cold, without the modern additions ot sugar and milk. We know this from ancient Mayan writings, which refer to the drink as “food of the gods.” and images of cocoa pods carved into the

walls of their elaborate stone temples.

Cocoa beans first came to Europe via Christopher Columbus, who brought a large handful to Spain from his last voyage to the Caribbean islands, in 1502, presenting them to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (who reportedly dismissed them as a curiosity) . Two decades later, the Spanish explorer Cortés was greeted by the Aztecs with cups of a dark drink, chocolate. The hospitality wasn’t returned: The Spanish conquered the Aztecs, but recognized cocoa’s value and began new plantations in the region.

The Spanish kept chocolate a secret for about a century, until Monks who were assigned the task of processing cocoa reportedly told their French counterparts about the drink. From there, chocolate, now served with cinnamon, vanilla and other spices, spread quickly to England and the rest of Europe. Then came the industrialization, chocolate makers invented new ways to grind and press the beans, and prices dropped.

One last date is notable: In 1849, an English company introduced the first solid eating chocolate. THE WORLD HASN’T BEEN THE SAME SINCE.


It’s real hard to envision how something so rich and refined can come from such an odd-looking tree, but that’s the case with chocolate. Cacao trees grow only in very rainy forests in a narrow equatorial band around the world. African countries (namely Ghana and the Ivory Coast) account for 70 percent of the world’s entire production, followed by Indonesia and Brazil. There are three main varieties, each with a unique flavor: criollo, relatively rare and considered very high quality; forastcro, the most common vanety; and trinitario, a hybrid of the other two.

Cultivated, the trees reach about 25 feet; every six months hard-shelled pods sprout directly from the trunks and branches. They look like small footballs and are then hacked off the trees by hand.

Each pod contains 20 to 50 cocoa beans, protected in a creamy pulp. The beans are scooped from the pods, placed in shallow boxes and covered with banana leaves to ferment for several days. Then comes drying: The beans are spread out in the sun or blown with hot air over several days. They are then bagged and ready for market.

The process continues at a manufacturing plant (most likely in the Netherlands or Germany) in several steps that you don’t see in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: The beans are cleaned, blended to create a particular flavor, roasted, cooled and cracked to remove the shells, leaving, ultimately, ~~nibs”—potent pieces of beans that are the basis of all things chocolate.

The pieces are then ground by large rollers; the friction generates enough heat to melt the cocoa butter in the nibs and liquefy them into “chocolate liquor.”

What happens next depends on what’s being made. For cocoa powder, used in drinks, baking, etc., the liquor is pressed to remove cocoa butter (which makes up about half of the cocoa bean), leaving a dry cake.

For eating chocolate, various ingredients are mixed into the dry cake—cocoa butter, sugar and milk, for example, for milk chocolate—then pressed into a smooth paste, “conched” (kneaded with other ingredients to make the chocolate smooth and

creamy) and finally ~~tempered or carefully cooled into a solid form, whether it be a candy bar or a big block of chocolate for a chocolatier.

That’s the process, hut how it’s executed plays a huge role in the final taste, says Carole Bloom (, a chocolate expert, author and famous spokeswoman for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA).

“There are so many things involved that influence quality’ says Bloom, a Costco member in Carlsbad, California. “One is the quality of the beans how they’re grown and how they’re fermented. Another is how or if the beans are blended, just like with wines, there’s a big area of high-end chocolate now that is focusing on single origin or on various plantations.”

She adds, “And there’s how long the beans are roasted, and at what temperature. And how long the chocolate is couched. If you take two chocolate bars, one a low end and one a high end, you can definitely tell the difference.”

Good or bad for you?

Since its first imbibers, chocolate has been hailed as a magic potion of sorts for a variety of ills, from anemia and asthma to hangovers and hemorrhoids.

The purported benefits haven’t slowed in the modern age. A British nutritionist, Dr. Keith Scott recently announced that eating two pieces of his Doctor’s Chocolate will relieve daily stress and “put the joy back in living.” (Sounds like Brave New World: “You do look glum! What you need is a gram of soma.”)

What’s the truth?

Chocolate clearly has healthful attributes, says Leah Porter, vice president of scientific affairs for the CMA ( The cocoa bean is a good source of antioxidants called flavanols, which are made by plants, apparently to ward off insect pests and diseases—and may do similar good things in humans. (Other flavanol—rich foods are apples, blueberries, nuts, tea, purple grapes and red wine.)

The darker the chocolate, the better. Also, studies have found the cocoa butter in chocolate to be one of the “good fats” like olive oil, in that it doesn’t raise our cholesterol levels.

“The research so far indicates there are potential health benefits in consuming cocoa and chocolate, as part of a balanced diet and as part of an overall healthy lifestyle,” says Porter. She quickly adds, “We emphasize that cocoa and chocolate need to be consumed responsibly, in moderation.”

The problem, points out Clay Gordon, a Costco member in Larchmont, New York, and editor and publisher of, is that most of the chocolate we eat isn’t just chocolate—it’s sugar, milk products and the rich, creamy high-fat-fillings found in truffles and Gurnp’s goodies.

“In general, everything that is a negative connotation with chocolate can be attributed to its fat and sugar content. And, primarily, the butterfat content says Gordon. “Everything that is good that we associate with chocolate is in the cocoa powder. So although chocolate does have healthy aspects to it, it does need to be eaten in moderation because of the high fat content associated with it.”

Scientists have also examined exactly what happens when we eat chocolate—and why we come back for more (and more). Chocolate kicks off chemical reactions in the brain, specifically mood-lifting endorphins. One recent study by Oxford researchers found that just showing mouth watering pictures of chocolate to their subjects turns on brain pleasure centers.

But equally alluring may simply be the sense of indulgence we get in a good piece of chocolate. “There’s a very strong textural component to this” says Gordon. “There has been some research that suggests that one of the most addictive properties to chocolate is the way it feels melting in your mouth. That is what gets most people going)’

Or, as one character in the film Chocolat sighs, “It tortures you with pleasure.”

The future is dark

One certainty about chocolate is this: We eat a fair amount of it. Americans consume 3.5 billion (YES - with a B) pounds a year, which calculates out to about 12 pounds per person—not as much as the Swiss, who happen to eat about twice that amount.

We’re eating more of the dark varieties, which have higher amounts of cocoa, probably because of news that chocolate has health benefits. “Chocolate is now moving upscale ...... along similar lines as wine and coffee, reports Packaged Facts, the publishing division of

And we’re finding new, creative ways of getting it into our diets. Chic chefs might try the “Bass in Coarse Sea Salt with Bitter Chocolate” recipe from famous chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut, toss roasted cocoa nibs on a salad (move over, pepper) or conjure up exotic pairings with chile peppers, ginger, curry and even grapefruit. We’re apt to see new drinks, foods and seasoning sauces made with natural cocoa powders—the pure, pre-sugared stuff, delivering a wallop of antioxidants and feel-good chemicals right to the taste buds and on to the brain. I think you’ll see an increase in using cocoa as a delivery mechanism, in foods and medications and other things,” says the CMA’s Porter

Ultimately, what is it really about chocolate? Not even chocoholics are direct when asked. “For me, as much as it is the taste of chocolate, it is actually the interconnectcdness, the relationship, the way that chocolate brings people together. which is the exciting part for mc—the fun and interesting part of it for me muses chocolate expert Gordon. Adds Bloom, “It’s like you’re treating yourself— you’re doing something luxurious for yourself:’

Yes , that certain je ne sais quoi.


The Costo Connection Magazine

February 2007 (Pgs. 16-18)

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