Chocolate is a confection made of the seeds of the cacoa tree. It is native to Mesoamerica and has been an important food product there for 4000 years.
The seeds of the cacao are intensely bitter and are fermented to develop the flavor. The beans are then dried, cleaned and roasted. The Maya and Aztec preparation was an unsweetened chocolate drink called “bitter water.”
After roasting the shell is removed to produce cacao nibs. Cacao nibs can also be made before roasting to provide the raw nibs and cacao powder used in raw desserts. The cacao nibs are heated and ground into cocoa mass – sort of like making peanut butter: the grinding releases the fat and creates a thick, creamy substance. The finer the ground, the more smooth the final chocolate will be. This mass is also called chocolate liquor, although it has no liquor content. As it cools the cocoa mass/liquor hardens into unsweetened chocolate. It can also be separated into cocoa butter and cocoa solids.
Most chocolate today is a combination of cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other fats, and sweeteners (usually sugar), along with whatever other flavorings might be desired. Our raw truffles are a very simple example of this – at their most basic they consist of cacao powder (cocoa solids), cacao butter (fat), agave or maple syrup (sweetener) and other flavorings such as vanilla. We also add cashews which create a lighter, creamier truffle filling.
Dark chocolate contains the highest amount of cocoa butter and solids, while milk chocolate contains milk powder or condensed milk along with the cocoa butter and solids. White chocolate has cocoa butter, but no cocoa solids.
Now, you may be wondering about the difference between cocoa and cacao. In the past the words could be used interchangeably, and were the result of variants in spelling. However, with the rise of interest in raw chocolate products, cacao, which is also the name for the tree, has begun to be used to designate chocolate products that are prepared without various heating and roasting processes.
Here at Chaco we are careful to keep this distinction: when we say cacao powder we are referring to a raw powder which has a grayer color and a more bitter flavor. When we say cocoa we are referring to a roasted powder that has a reddish color and milder flavor. To add farther complication, we purchase Dutch cocoa (or Dutched cocoa) which has undergone an alkaline treatment invented by Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist. This process reduces the harshness of the cocoa, makes it more shelf stable and helps create consistent quality for baking and other preparations. It is possible to have cocoa powder that is not Dutched – it appears much more like our raw cacao powder. However, raw cacao cannot be Dutched as the process requires heating it.
Despite its long history, solid confections made of chocolate are a relatively new invention. For most of its history it was used to make a drink, but once it was brought back to Europe, and especially after the invention of the Dutching process in the early 1800, they began to experiment with changing the proportions of cocoa solids to cocoa butter and began to create solid chocolate confections.
There are controversies surrounding chocolate. Much of it is produced in the Ivory Coast in Africa and child labor is a huge issue, as is fair wages for growers and producers. The growing movement for Fair Trade chocolate is very important to combat exploitation, however, Fair Trade chocolate is only a tiny percent of the chocolate trade. In addition, there are not regulated standards for what Fair Trade means, so different companies may have different definitions that they follow. The truth is that to be an ethical consumer of chocolate, it may be necessary to research where a company sources their chocolate and not to simply trust a Fair Trade Label.
What about our chocolate? Two examples: our chocolate chips come from Agostini, an Italian family owned chocolate company that is on the Food Empowerment Project’s approved list. Our raw cacao powder is from the Ojio brand and is sourced in the Dominican Republic (South American chocolate is considered overall better because it has less slavery and child labor issues then Africa). We choose ethical wholesale companies such as Glory Bee and Earthly Gourmet, to purchase our bulk products from.
Chocolate has many chemicals and compounds in it that are interesting from a health perspective. However, it should be kept in mind that these are present in the cocoa mass, and that as that whole food product is altered with sugar and other fats, the health benefits are diluted even as the calorie intake is increased. The darker and more bitter the chocolate, the more of the health benefits you are getting. Anyone who claims milk chocolate has healthy qualities – well, let’s just say that’s very wishful thinking.
Some of the potential benefits of dark chocolate are positive effects to the circulatory and cardiovascular system, reduction in blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and a boost to cognitive abilities. It’s also high in minerals and antioxidants.
Chocolate has been considered an aphrodisiac for centuries, and became associated with Valentine’s day in Victorian England. Cadbury’s Chocolate Company started selling their new chocolate candy in heart shaped boxes in 1861. Our selection of chocolate treats this February including truffles, cupcakes, peanut butter pie and a smoothie, should satisfy any chocolate lover.