Chocolate: What Is It Anyway?


Ah, chocolate, that ancient aphrodisiac and portal to the spiritual realm, that soother of beasts, seductress of women, and killer of dogs. Where would be be without it? Chocolate has been used by human beings for over a thousand years, and probably even earlier. Originating in the Americas, chocolate was perfected and revered by the ancient Maya, especially as ritual drinks in religious rites.

Chocolate is made from the beans of the Theobroma cacao tree. Theobroma is Greek for Godfood, and we can certainly understand why. This odd tree grows giant pods from its branches and right from its trunk, pods filled with pale beans that are extremely bitter when eaten alone. But as everyone knows, when they are prepared and then mixed with a few other ingredients, they produce a sweet, ambrosial flavor that appeals to most people. The cacao tree is native to the New World, which explains why the ancient Maya were so fond of it, and introduced it to Europeans. In fact, the word cacao, from which comes coco and chocolate, is a Mayan word.

The giant bean pods are harvested manually and then broken open. The beans are removed, placed in containers, and covered with banana leaves, where they ferment for up to several weeks. Fermentation changes their chemical properties, turning the excessive bitterness into a flavor that is closer to the chocolate that we know and love. But they are still not ready for eating just yet. They are sun-dried for about a week, at which point they are ready to be shipped to a chocolate factory (Willy Wonka?).

At the chocolate factory, the beans are roasted, much like coffee beans are roasted. After the fermentation, drying, and roasting processes, the beans are dark brown, the color of edible chocolate. The beans are then cracked, and the husks are separated from the beans themselves. The cracked pieces of pure cacao beans are called nibs.

The nibs are crushed and ground into a paste called chocolate liquor. It consists of pure cacao, and the natural fat of the bean, called cacao butter. The chocolate maker adds sugar, usually vanilla, and any other desired flavorings into the mix. This paste is put into a machine called a conch, which further mixes and somewhat aerates the chocolate liquor. The maker may add some cacao butter and soy lecithin to the mixture to smoothen the texture. Finally, the chocolate is tempered, which involves heating and cooling it several times, while constantly stirring it. This not only improves the texture, but regulates the molecular and crystalline structures, so that it melts properly in the mouth, or in a pot for culinary uses. Thus, we have chocolate!

Chocolate has some amazing properties. It has been shown to activate some of the same brain processes in females as do romantic infatuation, and orgasm. Furthermore, chocolate with a high cacao content (usually called dark chocolate) has been shown to stimulate the immune system in a major way, and help prevent sickness and disease. Moreover, eating a moderate amount of chocolate every day causes most people to simply feel happier and healthier. These healthful effects are all caused by powerful phytochemicals in the cacao beans. And — get this — a University of Westminster study found that merely sniffing chocolate provides a boost to the immune system!

There is much debate among chocolate connoisseurs as to which country produces the best chocolate. I have my own opinion, but I will say that, overall, Switzerland and Belgium tend to consistently produce the finest chocolate. Of course, there is also some very excellent Mexican chocolate, especially that made by the Maya people using their ancient recipes. A chocolate’s quality can be measured in the complexity of its flavor. Another important measure is how smoothly and consistently the chocolate melts in your mouth. A chocolate that melts slowly, smoothly, and regularly, without clumps or a granulated texture, is often a high-quality chocolate, because its melting quality means that it was fermented and refined longer, and with more care, than a more industrial, mass-produced chocolate. Contrarily, a chocolate that melts quickly, and leaves chunks of slower-melting chocolate in your mouth, is usually the sign of a cheap or inferior chocolate.

But let’s face it. Most of us who love chocolate, eat it not for its health benefits, or its molecular properties. Instead, we eat it because it is sweet and delicious, and genuinely makes us feel a little better. It is a dark, seductive flavor that calms us and heightens our mood. It is an integral part of many pastries and desserts, and even an important part of some savory dishes, like certain Mexican mole sauces, and — oddly enough — Cincinnati chili. It adds a dark, rich, complex base to these savory dishes. Chocolate is truly the food of the gods. It is extremely healthy, it mimics love and orgasm, and it soothes and calms us. It is just another piece of evidence that food is closely and inseparably interwoven with human love.