Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Thinking About… Chocolate

"GanachĂ© de chocolate" by Luisa Contreras / CC BY 2.0

As with most children born into the United States, my first experiences with chocolate involved mainly mass-marketed, overly processed products. Chocolate was a big deal when my sisters and I were younger, mainly because we were allergic to dairy. Despite the fact that we'd all get awful stomachaches after consuming anything containing milk or cream, Hershey's milk chocolate bars called to us simply because we were so rarely allowed to touch them. Ten years ago in Puyallup, it wasn't super easy for our parents to find inexpensive dairy-free chocolate. Much of what they did find was super processed and icky, because the producers were mainly concerned with making the bar lactose-free, rather than making chocolate that was actually good. When my sisters and I thought of chocolate, we dreamt of those fantastic Hershey bars, because what does a six-year-old know about fair-trade cacao, the importance of roasting temperature, or actual chocolate percentage?

As my sisters and I grew older, we developed a better understanding of why we had to be careful about the things we put into our bodies. The three of us grew into acceptance in our own ways. Today, Sydney believes she has grown out of her dairy allergy and will consume the stuff freely; Meissa knows her limits but will nosh on Goldfish or a Frappuchino when she's out with her friends; and I avoid dairy at almost any cost (except for maybe a bite of Talenti gelato at a friends') while fulfilling my cheese cravings with goat- and sheep's-milk products.

Ever since I first understood the sort of ingredients that are included in the average "chocolate" candy bar, I have chosen to seek out healthier, more chocolate-tasting chocolate. A while back I wrote about some of my favorite chocolate bars and brands, which you can check out here. Back then I thought that what I was eating was about as healthy and real as I could get…. but I was wrong. Now, over a year later, my obsession with chocolate has done nothing more than intensify. Recently, I've toured the Theo chocolate factory and paid for a chocolate tasting class at Chocolopolis on Queen Anne. I've listened to this great podcast on Stuff You Should Know, explored every chocolate-selling shop I know (though Chocolopolis is amazing in it's selection of chocolates, I am still partial to the shelves of imported chocolate in Dilaurenti at Pike Place), and basically immersed myself in the history of chocolate. Through all this, I've learned a lot that I want to share and thus, we arrive at the purpose of this post.

1. Most people's idea of chocolate isn't "real" chocolate. 

Most of the chocolate you find in grocery stores should not be categorized as such. Any so-called chocolate bar with sugar as the first ingredient has already knocked itself out of the running, as has any "chocolate" made with anything other than chocolate (which can be listed using a few names, including cacao, cocoa powder, chocolate liqueur and cocoa butter), sugar, vanilla and lecithin. I personally avoid eating chocolate with lecithin in it, but those bars that have sunflower or soy lecithin on the label only use it to make chocolate move through their machines faster and more smoothly. Some chocolates also include ingredients like almonds or cherries, sea salt or chili, but those natural additions are acceptable when the goal is simply to add another flavor.

The problem with the chocolate most people eat is that the ingredients read like something out of a horror story. Instead of 3-5 ingredients, they can list upwards of ten- and most of them overpower the flavor of the actual chocolate! Here are the ingredients in a regular Hershey chocolate bar, taken from the Hershey Company website itself:

Milk chocolate (sugar; milk; chocolate; cocoa butter; lactose; milk fat; soy lecithin; PGPR, emulsifier; vanillin, artificial flavor).


Compare this to the ingredients list of Theo's 85% Dark Chocolate bar…

Organic Fair Trade cocoa beans, organic Fair Trade sugar, organic ground vanilla bean.

As you can clearly see, Theo focuses more on the quality of the actual chocolate. This is real chocolate. Anything with an excess of ingredients, chocolate as anything other than the first ingredient, or unrecognizable ingredients like PGPR is NOT real chocolate.

2. The chocolate making process is elaborate, hot and amazing.

When my sister and I toured the Theo chocolate factory a few weeks ago, I was unprepared for how extremely HOT it would be. I mean, I'd worn a tank top because I figured as a working factory it'd be warm. But it was BOILING. Workers toiled in pants and long sleeves, and I couldn't imagine how they  stood the temperature for more than five minutes. I only passed through the actual chocolate-making area and I, in my tank top and shorts, was sweating just from that minute! But it was worth it. I can't recall exactly all the steps that go into the creation of chocolate, but there are many machines the bean must go through to reach the state we consume it in. This includes "destoning"(cleaning the beans), "winnowing" (separating the bean husks and cacao nibs), and "conching" (I believe this is basically the way you determine the final flavor and texture of the chocolate, besides tempering). All these strange terms, and the many steps in between, create the silky bars of sweetened cacao beans that arrive at our lips.

3. Fair Trade may not be as much a guarantee of equal rights you think it is.

First off, let me just say that I fully support Fair Trade products, and I think the idea is wonderful. Also, I haven't done enough research to claim that anything I'm about to say is grounded in fact. Instead, the things I believe are based on snippets of information I've read or heard while talking to people about chocolate. Thus, let me state now that everything in the following paragraph is merely an idea.

My problems with Fair Trade are few- I have only one major complaint. It is that, although the workers that are involved prosper, many cannot afford to either become certified or make the certification requirements (which you can see here). Thus, many companies that deserve to be Fair Trade simply cannot participate in the program. The idea of transparency in business and fair wages is a fantastic one, and I love what Fair Trade is attempting- however, the program needs to account for companies that can't make these requirements financially.

4. Chocolate tastes different depending on where it's grown.

I had no idea this was the case until I went to the Chocolopolis tasting. I'd been figuring it out slowly, by noticing that I prefer bars from Venezuela and Vietnam and tend to avoid those from South America. I'd thought perhaps this was just because of the way certain areas produced certain bars. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the soil itself, and the environment the cacao is grown in, contributes to the flavor! The Chocoloplois website has a very handy guide to chocolate flavoring around the world, which you can find by scrolling to the bottom of this page.

5. Champagne might actually go better with pizza than with chocolate.

Okay, so this one's not so chocolate focused, but really. We've all heard the romantic (or lonely breakup) stories involving champagne and chocolate, but according to a book I read recently (I think it was Mireille Guiliano's "French Women Don't Get Fat"), the fat and sugar in chocolate don't do very well mixed with the bubbliness of champagne. You'd be better off matching some cheesy, crusty goodness to your glass. It has something to do with the acidity.

So there you are! I'm still learning about chocolate, and this is really only a sample of what the world of cacao has to offer us. I want to explore more flavors and experiment with chocolate in my own kitchen- but for now, I'll settle for reading all about it. And tasting some, too, of course!

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