Or so I am reliably informed. It is, after all, a bean. It grows in a pod. It is edible. It provides fortification and energy. What more evidence is required?
It is mystifying that our ancient ancestors figured out methods of taming their world; of finding and making foodstuffs digestible. Who first picked up an oyster and decided it was ingestible? Seriously, how did someone, nearly 4,000 years ago, determine that the hard bitter beans hidden inside a cacoa pod could be extracted, fermented, roasted and then ground into a paste; that that paste could later be blended with honey, spices and chilies; and finally cut with water, heated, whipped until frothy and drunk? Not only was there no internet, television or radio, there were no books, little documentation of any kind and precious little time for anything other than survival. Yet that is what the Olmecs of the cacoa tree’s native Orinoco and Amazon Valleys did. It was a process that was revered first by them and then by succeeding Myan, Aztec and Incan cultures. It was the Olmecs too who domesticated the precious but finicky cacoa tree and reserved its produce for their royalty. Wonder whose idea that was.
For the major part of its history, chocolate has been consumed as a warmed beverage. It was touted as a fortifier and an aphrodisiac. The Spanish gold-seeker, Cortes, wrote to his king saying that a cup of the precious drink permitted a man to walk all day without food. The infamous Montezuma was said to imbibe three gallons of the magical drink to fortify himself in preparation for his nights with an abundance of wives. As is so with many valuables, the drinking of chocolate was ritually associated with significant events, the harvest, the arrival of planting season, births, marriages and deaths. At one point, the beans were used as money. Its consumption remained a luxury item of the wealthy and privileged for centuries.
The Spaniards brought chocolate to Europe where they secretly monitored the fermentation and roasting methods. They maintained their monopoly until an Italian traveler learned the process and took it to Italy first and then on to the rest of Europe. Europe is where chocolate acquired its sweetness. Then a Dutch chemist developed an extraction method allowing the creation of powdered cocoa and paved the way for the production of solid chocolate. It was the invention of the steam engine that made mass production of chocolate possible. Indeed, it was a long way from bean to bonbon.
The ingestible possibilities of chocolate have barely been explored. The moles of Central America have brought together chocolate and savory meats and vegetables. An old Piamontese recipe uses chocolate with wild boar to mouth-watering satisfaction. That idea having been dangled, nothing says that we must move our chocolate tastes to the exotic too quickly. When you take your next chocolate expedition at the local markets, you will find the term “Fair Trade”. This makes it easier for us to differentiate between chocolates made from cacoa produced without the unfair child labor that has been associated with cacoa production in some West African countries.
Fortunately for us, we have local experts to aid us in feeding our taste for this rich treat. At our recent Winter Harvest Farmers dinner, our market’s Barbara Mojon-Gugnoni provided dessert. It was so meltingly fabulous, I asked Barbara if she would be willing to share her recipe. Happily, she agreed and you will find it below with many thanks for her graciousness.