In honor of National Chocolate Day, I give you a (substantially rewritten) essay on the "food of the gods," originally from 2007._________________________________________________
Ah, chocolate. (Onomatopoeically rendered, that should read: Aaaaaahhhh,chooooocoolaaate…)
But moaning in pleasure doesn’t come close to conveying the gratification of this ecstatically wonderful confection.
Cocoa, the essence of chocolate, is named from the Spanish cacao, which in turn came from the Nahuatl (Uto-Aztecan) cacaua, root form of cacahuatl, “bean of the cocoa-tree.” The confection we call chocolate is a combination of solids from the seeds of the tropical cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, with sugar, cacao fat, and other additions. It’s been made, in some form, since at least 1100 BC.
From the time of its earliest making, it was associated with the goddess Xochiqetzal, bringer of fertility; it came to the Western world through the offices of Cortés, who brought the cocoa bean back to Spain. Thanks to the industrious Spanish monks—and the Duke of Savoy, Emanuele Filiberto, who brought cocoa beans back to Turin, Italy in 1559—cocoa-based confections were a luxury item to European nobility by the end of the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, the Turinese confettiere Doret perfected the modern method of producing the solid candy we now think of as chocolate.
Its base, cacao, is as unique chemically as chocolate is historically, containing theobromine, a potent stimulant, as well as flavonoids and antioxidants. Humans also absorb a family of chemicals known as anandamides (named from the Sanskrit for “joy”), endogenous cannabinoids which—with chocolate’s tryptophan, phenethylamine, and ethanolamine content—give rise to mild neurosynaptic stimulation…and the legends of chocolate’s aphrodisiac qualities.
Making good chocolate is a long, intricate, and cash-intensive process whose subtlety and complexity resembles that of winemaking—with the added step of confection-making after the growth, fermentation, roasting, and grinding processes. The most expensive cacao varietals are the Criollos grown in Central America and the Caribbean. Beans sell for an average of $20.00 a pound raw and peeled, and the added costs of chocolate production bring the cost of a well-crafted 3-ounce single-origin Criollo bar to between $12-$22. The two best Criollo bars produced, the Château d’Yquems of chocolate, are the Chuao and Porcelana bars by Domori and Amedei: 70% cocoa bars that steal the breath and leave the skin prickling in delight at the sensual, velvety heaven they produce on the tongue.
The rougher, spicier bliss of the blunt and artless Forastero, the bean from which most of the world’s chocolate is made, has its appeal as well. As a chocolate gourmet who’s explored Southeast Europe on a budget, and its chocolate in small pieces, I’ve stumbled across some melting Forastero raptures on the way. One that stands out is Lindt’s Edelbitter Mousse Sauerkirsch-Chili 70% Cacaogehalt.
Lindt, whose founder invented the conching process that gives modern chocolate its smooth texture, is the finest mass-producer of chocolates in the world. Its exquisite 85% bar gives even the ‘grand-cru’ producers a run for their money; and its Mousse Sauerkirsch-Chili is a triumph of both confiserie and chocolatiering. Hearkening back to the very beginning of xocolatl (in which cacao was blended with chili and drunk), 70% cocoa solids encase a 70% mousse, which in turn envelops sour cherry extract, which enwraps a small core of chili extract. The distinct beginning, middle, and end notes deliquesce across the tastebuds; first the round, dark cacao, the barest trace of bittersweet coffee underpinning it, melting imperceptibly into the sourness of the cherry, finishing creamy on the tongue as the spice of the chili warms through the fruit until your tongue is left tingling and sated.
Read that last onomatopoeically. Better yet, read the words of Baron Justus von Liebig, a 19th- century German chemist who wrote that “Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power…the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.”
I’m helpless but to agree. Voraciously.