CHOCOLATE, GLORIOUS CHOCOLATE!
by Lillian Africano
It was called “food of the gods” by the Aztecs; it’s been blamed for such ills as acne and tooth decay by modern man. And now, happy day, chocolate is being celebrated once again, as a food that’s not only delicious, but one that holds the promise of significant health benefits.
According to recent studies, cocoa flavanols could have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure, increasing blood flow and preventing blood clots. Another study, published last year in Early Human Development, monitored some 300 pregnant women; it found that women who indulged in chocolate on a daily basis had babies who seemed happier and more relaxed than those of moms who abstained.
CHOCOLATE AS THE FOOD OF LOVE?
According to Italian researchers at the San Raffaele hospital in Milan, women who eat chocolate regularly have a better sex life than those who abstain. The study, which involved 163 women, said: “Women who have a daily intake of chocolate showed higher levels of desire than women who did not have this habit. Chocolate can have a positive physiological impact on a woman’s sexuality.” One could suggest, however, that women who love chocolate are more sensual than those who don’t—but the connection between sex and chocolate is an old one: the Aztec emperor Montezuma used to consume gallons of the stuff to satisfy, it is said, the needs of his very large harem. The legendary lover, Casanova, also reportedly drank cups of chocolates as a prelude to seduction. Though chocolate contains a number of “feel good” components, and though thousands of heart-shaped boxes of the stuff are given out on Valentine’s Day, a definitive scientific connection between chocolate and sexual desire has yet to be made.
CHOCOLATE COMES FULL CIRCLE
While all this may seem new and revolutionary, chocolate has had a long and distinguished history. Ancient civilizations—the Olmec, Maya and Aztecs, to name a few—revered the bounty of the cocoa tree; at various times, the tree was worshipped and its beans used for currency. As a drink, it was consumed by Aztec warriors who believed it gave them strength in combat. Brought back to Europe by the Spanish conquistadores, chocolate quickly became the fashionable drink of 16th century European aristocracy. The royal physician to King Philip II of Spain prescribed it for fever and to relieve discomfort in hot weather.
Tasting fine chocolate is similar to tasting wine; it involves all five senses and, with practice, the chocolate connoisseur develops a keener appreciation of what he or she likes—and why. Michel Richart discusses the art of tasting at length in his book, Chocolat Mon Amour, but here we have some basic information taken from the book:
Chocolate should be at the appropriate temperature – somewhere between 66-76 degrees Fahrenheit. The mouth should be rinsed with water between tastings.
Bitterness, acidity, sweetness, astringency and saltiness (depending on the filling) are the basic tastes inherent to chocolate. The cocoa should be slightly bitter without being acrid. A barely perceptible touch of acidity and slight sweetness help only to highlight other, more powerful flavors.
The intense aromas and perfumes of the chocolate unfold fairly rapidly on the tongue, some providing a very distinct final note. Some of the many aromas and flavors you may detect in chocolate are:
-In plain chocolate: cocoa, pineapple, banana, passion fruit, vanilla, cinnamon—or a blend of several of these.
-In filled chocolate: all of the aromas of plain chocolate coupled with the flavors of the filling—almond, hazelnut, pistachio, walnut, honey and fresh fruits. Some fillings have a hint of saltiness, which intensifies the other flavors.
-Texture: there should be absolutely no perceptible “grain” on the tongue. (Richart’s ingredients are ground and blended to a fineness of between 12 and 20 microns.)
Plain chocolate: To really taste the base and primary flavor notes, wait a few seconds after you place a piece into your mouth. To release the secondary flavors, expand the chocolate’s surface by chewing 5 to 10 times. Let the chocolate melt slowly by pushing it gently against the roof of the mouth. Note the flavor, the texture and the way the chocolate lingers on the tongue.
Filled chocolate: After you place the chocolate in your mouth, let it melt for a few seconds to release the base and primary flavor notes of the exterior chocolate. Then chew 3 to 5 times to blend the filling and the chocolate coating. New flavors continue to surface as the two melt in your mouth. Finally, note how long the flavor lingers on the tongue.
Chocolate soon found its way to the royal court of France and to the commercial markets of Britain, along with coffee and tea. In 18th century America, Dr. James Baker of Massachusetts and an Irishman, John Hannon, created one of the earliest machine-based chocolate manufacturing enterprises. Using an old grist mill, they ground cacao beans into chocolate liquor and pressed the paste into cakes meant to be made into drinking chocolate. Their company was originally known as Hannon's Best Chocolate, but was renamed the Baker Company after Hannon died; the company was bought by General Mills in 1927, but the chocolate is still sold in markets under the Baker name.
Modern chocolate-making techniques were developed by descendants of Joseph Fry, a Quaker physician who founded Joseph Fry & Son. His great-grandson discovered a way to mix some of the melted cacao butter back into the de-fatted or “Dutched” cocoa powder, along with sugar, to make a paste that could be pressed into a mold. The chocolate bar was a great success, which made chocolate a treat to eat as well as a delicious drink.
In the 19th and early 20th century, a host of well-known names entered the business of chocolate-making: Cadbury, Tobler, Ghirardelli, Nestlé, Lindt, Hershey, Guittard, Godiva, Valhrona and Cella.
Today, with the news that chocolate may have health benefits similar to those of green tea and red wine, we’ve seen a renewed interest in the bounty of the cocoa tree. However, the “healthy” chocolate isn’t the cheap stuff found in vending machines, but rather chocolate that has a cocoa content of 70% or more. It’s the rich dark artisanal chocolate that seduces the taste buds, melts in the mouth and reminds us that Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for the tree from which the cocoa beans come, means “food of the gods.”
There are any number of fine chocolates on the market today: Valhrona, Leonidas and Scharffen Berger (recently acquired by Hershey’s), to name a few. Among my favorites are the superb creations of French master chocolatier, Michel Richart, who has married taste and design to make chocolates that please the eye and make the endorphins sing with joy. They’ve been described by a major fashion magazine as “the most beautiful in the world”, and the Robb Report called them “the haute couture of chocolate.”
Richart makes a great variety of filled and unfilled chocolates. Of particular interest to spa-goers is the Balsamic Family, so named because it offers all the soothing benefits of a relaxing balm for body and mind. This collection of dark chocolate spotlights the strength of cocoa; it’s well-rounded and smooth, with botanical elements, pure single geographic origins, silky ganache and refined flavors. The Ultra Fines are a veritable tour of the world of chocolate: South America (from 70% to 82% pure cocoa); West Indies (from 70% to 82% pure cocoa); Africa (from 70% to 73% pure cocoa); Indian Ocean (from 70% to 82% pure cocoa).
With the world’s cocoa flavors to choose from, and with America’s palate just waking up to the joys of chocolate, it’s possible that the prediction Thomas Jefferson made in 1785 (in a letter to John Adams) might one of these days come true: "The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain..."
Note: For this, our holiday issue, we offer our readers the opportunity to win a selection of Richart’s gorgeous and mouth-watering handmade truffles. Enter now and this sumptuous gift may find its way to your door!