“Oh the Sensual Chocolate”


History of Cuisines

We could begin by covering ancient history. Cuisines of the world use many kinds of nuts in their dishes to add colour, flavour or unctuousness. In western cultures, nuts are often used for their thickening qualities due to their high fat content, and for their thickening qualities due to their high fat content, and for their emulsifying powers. In eastern cultures, however, they are sought after more for their perfuming attributes, like the sesame seed and the peanut… Though much less frequent than the universal use of butter, chocolate is not itself a new element in western cuisine. Auguste Escoffier (the King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings) already included it in his preparations. In fact, we find chocolate in many western recipes, in particular wine sauces of which the  grand veneer, to name but one, is a nice example.

I consulted several works on the subject and surfed the net, and I found that chocolate has actually been used in western cuisine for quite a while, but almost exclusively in what we might call “homeopathic” quantities. In fact, it has been welcomed as an emulsifier, a colouring additive, and used to give a more silky texture to dishes, but in such small doses that it is almost negligible. It is rare that a recipe should call for chocolate on a simple basis of its flavour or the unique aromatic qualities it expresses. Our culinary traditions tend to use fats such as butter, cream, or oil. Each of these fats more or less possesses the same emulsifying qualities while offering varied flavours and contrasting textures.


For historical reasons, every country and region gives priority to use of certain types of fat. All available are generally used according to regional cultures. Some are used purely on a basis of flavour, like olive oil, butter, or heavy creams. Others are used in certain applications for the texture they bestow on the dish, such as the use of lard in the traditional bugnes of Lyon, or in certain other similar specialties. Butter and oils, for example, are often used in dishes that require their emulsifying powers such as mayonnaise, beurre blanc, beurre mantels, or béarnaise sauces.

In Japan and China, sesame paste is used in many dishes, whereas in South-East Asia, particularly Malaysia and Thailand, the sesame is replaced by roasted peanuts, either whole or in paste, to crown countless dishes across the region. In Mexico, mole is a good example of “chocolate cuisine”. However, contrary to many cuisines of the world, in France there is scarce use of such nuts as pistachio, sesame seed, hazelnut, and even less of chocolate!

Cacao Tree
From the Bean to Chocolate, The divine road
The Tree

The cacao tree has evolved over millions of years, first under pressure from the environment, and later due to man. Today they are  divided into three large groups: the criollos, known for being less productive but of very high quality; the foresters, robust and vigorous but whose cacao is less intense; and the trinitarios, a term that encompasses all the hybrids of other two species. However, this classification is more representative than anything else, as we will see when we look a little further on, each kind is capable of producing the best “varieties”.

The Fruit

The fruit of a cacao tree can resemble a squash. It propagates. With each heavy rain it flowers and six months later the tree exhibits a few pods that manage to develop and ripen. Inside the pods we find a kind of cluster that holds about forty beans. They are surrounded by a white pulp that is, juicy, sweet,and lightly acidic.

Cacao Blossoms

The variety Theobroma cacao produces large beans capable of being transformed into cacao. Other varieties have been cultivated principally for their pulp, and especially the wine that could be extracted from them. The interior of the beans varies from the most intense violet of the foresters  to the white of the criollos, of which the famous porcelanas portray an opalescent whiteness, the colour of porcelain.

The Land

Countries of production

65 to 70% of worldwide production takes place in Africa, in particular the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Indonesia follows next, then Cameroon, Nigeria, and Brazil. Cacao is also found in the majority of countries in the tropical belt, imagesmany of which
have converted it into a speciality even of their levels of production are far lower than the preceding cases (e.g., Venezuela, Equator, Dominican Republic). Others only harvest very small quantities (Trinidad, Java, Belize, Sao Tome).

The environment

Within a single country, the altitude, amount of sunshine, soil, and rain patterns all play a factor in the development of cacao trees. It is easily noticeable how the fruits will grow and ripen differently depending on the richness of the soil, the availability of water, the ambient heat and the sunshine. A company like Valrhona, in particular, clearly knew how to profit from these variables by planting trees in very different terrains; one species, Porcelain del Pedregal, in rocky granite soil on the side of a mountain in Venezuela, another on a small plateau perched above thick vegetation, like Palmira, also in Venezuela.

The Transformation on the Plantation

The Harvest

The cacao tree is a perennial, presenting all the cycles of maturation the entire year, from the flower to the pod. The rainy seasons influence the production of the fruit. it is here that the quality of a chocolate begins. It all depends on a perfect understanding of the trees and, above all, surveillance and perfect maintenance of the plantation. For example, particular attention must be paid to the successive passages in the plots of land that facilitate the collection of fruits as they reach their maturity.

To ensure a consistent quality of production from one year to the next, special care must be taken while cutting the pods. In fact, if the floral cushion that gives it support is damaged after cutting, it is likely that the following year the yield will be malformed, or there will be no fruit at all.

The extraction of the beans

This stage consists of breaking the fruit in order to extract the beans. For a perfect result, and to avoid shattering the pods, something that causes an unalterable bitterness, the operation is often done by hand.

The fermentation

Without fermentation there is no aroma. This type of fermentation is particularly unique, but from a chemical point of view it is very similar to that of the grape. Wine becomes vinegar as well. The facilities of a plantation are by no means as sophisticated as those that one would find in a winery. Often the entire process is left entirely up to the manager of the plantation alone. We might jokingly call him “the Count of Cacao”. He is the equivalent of the master vintner, conducting the fermentation of the pulp, stirring it time and again and stopping it at the correct moment, after 3 to 7 days or more, depending on the cacao and the climatic conditions at the time.

During this stage the pulp ferments, acidifies, and reheats, sometimes up to more than 50 C. This creates certain conditions that provoke the transformation of the bean in an indirect way. In fact the bean “dies” in order to “resurrect” itself renewed. This fermentation allows the formation of a kind of “soup”: here are the renowned “precursors” to aromas. A magical process thus begins, revealing simple aromas, like fruity, floral notes, or more complex ones like pyrazinoics.

The Drying stage

Two principal functions first, to reduce the water content for the conservation of the fermented cacao; second tp provide natural warmth which facilitates the creation of nutty, toasted aromas through natural and complex reactions

After several cleaning processes of selection and caliber, more or less mechanical, the cacao is placed in 60 kilogram gunnysacks that are transferred to large containers, and the ship sets sail off to the sea, destined for ports around the world.

This is the first part of four parts on the History of the sensual chocolate.

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