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Christopher Columbus missed the boat. Our enchantment with chocolate has a history that dates all the way back to the Aztecs, who worshipped the god Quetzalacoatl as the giver of chocolate to the world. The Aztecs kept the secret of their sacred crop for ages. Christopher Columbus came across chocolate when he landed on the Island of Guanaja, in the Caribbean in 1502: the Indians there presented him with strange beans, which they ground and used to make their ritual potions. Had Europe at last discovered "tchocolatl", the drink of the Aztec gods? Well, not quite. Columbus was so unimpressed that he passed it up! Cortes was the first to recognize its potential and brought beans for planting to Haiti and Trinidad.

Considering how long chocolate has been around, it is surprising that the first "eating chocolate" was produced in England as late as 1847, but it was the Swiss who perfected it to the divine state we love today. Prior to the mid 1800s, chocolate was consumed as a drink, and for most of history it was not a very sweet one. The Europeans brought chocolate into grand fashion and cocoa houses were the rage.

How chocolate is made. Cocoa trees grow in the tropical areas of the world. There are three different varieties of cocoa trees: the robust and profuse "Forasteros" from Africa, the highly fragrant "Criollos" from the Caribbean and Latin America, the exquisite "Trinitarios" from the Caribbean Islands. As with coffee beans and grapes, the characteristics of the soil also affect the taste of the beans. After the pods are harvested and split open, the beans are fermented and then roasted. The outer husks are removed by a process that breaks the kernels into fragments called nibs. Chocolate is made from ground nibs, cocoa butter (the fat released when the nibs are subjected to hydraulic pressure), sugar and sometimes milk. The blending of the ground cocoa beans with cocoa butter is called conching. Chocolate is then poured into molds and allowed to cool down before being wrapped.

Identification of a great chocolate. Not all chocolates are alike! Here is a list of things to look for.

*Read the label. Some chocolatiers indicate the geographic origins of the beans they use. With a little practice, you will recognize the fragrances that please your taste buds the most. Note that great chocolate is a skillful blend of different types of cocoa beans, from various continents. The ingredients are all important. The more cocoa in the chocolate, the less sugar it contains and therefore the tastier it is (price also tends to go up because sugar is a lot cheaper that cocoa...). A normal chocolate these days contains only 35% cocoa. On most commercial chocolates sold in the U.S, the cocoa content of the bar is not advertised; if the first ingredient listed is sugar, you have a clue right there. A good quality dark chocolate has at least 43% cocoa content. With 55% or more, you have an outstanding product.

*Check the color. It should be perfectly even, brilliant and mouth-watering. Dark or bitter chocolate has a deep warm color; milk chocolate more of a light ochre, browner if it is rich in cocoa. Note that chocolate is very sensitive to sudden temperature changes: "blooming" (a whitish cast) will occur on the surface of the chocolate when a certain range of temperature has no been maintained. While the appearance is not perfect, the chocolate is still sound and flavorful: it will make excellent desserts.

*Smell the aroma. If you sniff it, there is a delightful tickling sensation in the nose and on the palate.

*Try some. Bite it: it should crack with a clean break. Bite again: once more it shatters cleanly and the texture, which is neither too oily nor too light begins to emerge. Slowly it starts to melt gently in you mouth.

*A long lasting taste? Eat it slowly to appreciate its flavor: some cocoas have a strong touch that gently fades, others linger deliciously on the tongue. You don't want fireworks, a taste that rockets up and comes straight down in a puff. What you are looking for is staying power, an enveloping sensation in the mouth. Watch out for insidious after-tastes: an excessive roasting and the use of vanillin is a common attempt at masking the mediocre quality of the cocoa beans used.

Le Club des Croqueurs de Chocolat. Once you become proficient in the art of chocolate tasting, may be you would like to apply to the Club des Croqueurs de Chocolat (the Chocolate Nibbler Club). Founded in Paris in 1981, it is unique in the world. Its mission is the introduction to its members of all forms of chocolate-making, as well as the range of comestibles it winds up in. The club's main activities are visits to the very best chocolate kitchens, ateliers and factories, as well as blindfold tests and comparative tastings. Those poker-faced events are carried out with all the gravity of a U.N. debate.

The Croqueurs are beyond exigent when it comes to choosing their members, who pay a $40 yearly fee for the favor. You must be a regular consumer of chocolate and appreciate it in diverse confections. You must read up on origins, methods of fabrication, product launches, etc... Every candidate needs two sponsors from within the club who will "testify to your competence". Hopefuls also have to fill out a detailed 12 part questionnaire. A word of caution: don't expect to get in if you only like milk chocolate. The club president says: "we don't want them because the best chocolate is never milk chocolate. We think it was something invented by Swiss cows to sell surplus milk."

Valrhona: making the ultimate chocolate bar. Valrhona was founded in 1925 and has only 150 employees. Until 1986, Valrhona was available only to professionals, many of whom simply melted down the blocks, poured the liquid into molds and packaged the chocolate as their own. Then the company wised up and decided to go after the market of connoisseurs. What makes Valrhona stand out? First, the severe selection of the beans: they choose the cocoa beans themselves, on the spot, in the tropical areas around the world. The quality control process is very strict: out of every 60-kilo burlap sack, 100 beans are pulled and put through a battery of tests. If more than one bean does not meet a particular requirement, the entire sack is returned, resold or thrown out. Valrhona works from 50 different cocoa varieties, which represent as many different shades of fine aromas. Good chocolate cannot be made from only one variety and composing a chocolate is very much like developing a perfume, where you mix the essences.

Roasting the beans is also a critical operation. At Valrhona, the beans are roasted species by species, in particularly small quantities, so they can loose their bitterness and exhale their aroma at best. Then comes the conching, the blending of the ground cocoa beans with cocoa butter. It is during this other crucial operation that the final texture thickening is obtained. Industrial chocolate is only conched during a few hours. Valrhona chocolates are conched at least 24 hours, often up to five days in an especially slow and progressive way.

The final taste test is conducted by a full-time jury of 10 who do nothing but smell and eat chocolate all day (where do I sign up for this job?). Chosen for their ability to memorize the taste of Valrhona they eliminate any item that may appear to have the slightest imperfection.

A few final words. The American chocolate market has changed a lot these past few years and more imported, high-quality chocolate are now available because consumers have become more knowledgeable about the product. Also, the various European countries that make chocolate continue to focus on the type of products that established their reputation: the Swiss and Belgians continue to offer excellent milk chocolates, pralinés and ganache; the French have decided to focus their attention on dark, bittersweet chocolate: several producers have joined the path that Valrhona paved 10 years ago and there is a lot of friendly rivalry to produce the ultimate dark bar: that's good news for chocolate lovers who can sample, analyze and wax poetic on their favorite treat.

JDV Recipes Featuring Chocolate
    DessertsBlack Forest Cake
    DessertsChocolate Charlotte
    DessertsChocolate Soufflé
    DessertsChocolate Truffles
    DessertsLava cakes
    DessertsReine de Saba

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