Interlude: How chocolate is made

Can’t speak for your household, friends, but we need a break from the winter doldrums over here. I’d claim that it’s all grey and gloomy outside – typical February weather – but the truth is, it’s bright and sunny and windy and disturbingly warm and snow-free for this time of year. Our “exceptional drought” is no longer exceptional, it’s just the way things are now. (Or to throw down an overused phrase from 2020: it’s the “new normal.”) Our town has pre-announced water restrictions, as have many cities on the Front Range. We’re hoping for some moisture later this week, but this late in the season it’s highly unlikely we’ll make up the deficit.

To that end, we’re going on a tropical vacation. Of course I mean this metaphorically, not literally! We haven’t traveled in well more than a year, and have no plans to do so anytime soon. A couple of years ago, however, we went on a chocolate trip to Belize where we learned about the process of making chocolate from bean to bar. And so, let’s imagine that we are all calm, warm and relaxed in the tropics and that everything is right with the world.

Cacao trees are a tropical plant, typically reaching fifteen to twenty-five feet in height.

All chocolate comes from cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) which only grow in a limited geographical range: about twenty degrees north and south of the equator. This tropical belt is also where you’ll find coffee and lots of delicious fruits, like pineapple, guava, papaya and many more (coffee and chocolate are both botanically fruit). Most of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, but a small amount is produced in Latin America.

Cacao pods are about eight inches in length, though the size depends on variety and climate.

Cacao pods are ripe when they turn a bright yellow-orange color. Not all the pods ripen at the same time, so the trees are usually harvested continuously throughout the year.

The pulp encasing the beans is often used to make a fermented drink.

Once harvested, the seedpods are opened and the cacao beans removed. The beans are surrounded by a white pulp called baba, which tastes fresh and fruity.

The smell of the fermenting cacao beans is intense and amazing.

The beans are cleaned of most of the baba and left to ferment for about a week. (Exposure to light turns the pale, creamy beans a darker violet color.) In Latin America, the fermentation is most often done through a simple yet elegant series of cascading boxes; in Africa, beans are typically fermented in piles on the ground.

Checking for readiness.

Fermenting cacao beans are sliced open regularly to determine the degree of fermentation. It takes a great deal of skill and knowledge to know when the beans are perfect.

Drying beans need tropical heat but not tropical moisture.

After fermentation is complete, the cacao beans are dried. This is an important step; if the beans are shipped with excess moisture, they’ll spoil in transit. Enormous covered drying barns are used, and the beans are turned regularly to ensure even drying. The tropical weather can make this step challenging.

Ready for transport.

Once the beans are completely dried, they’re sorted, graded and shipped to wholesalers or chocolate manufacturers. Belize produces a very small amount of cacao relative to other countries, but the cacao is of a spectacularly high quality.

Grinding cacao nibs into chocolate paste.

When the cacao beans arrive at the manufacturer, they’re inspected and cleaned again. The whole beans are roasted at low temperatures to bring out flavor (much like coffee beans), then the shell is separated from the nib (the “meat” of the bean) by winnowing. (Cacao shells are frequently used as garden mulch.) Grinding pure cacao nibs yields “cocoa mass”; applying high pressure to this cocoa mass produces cocoa butter and cocoa powder.

Conching chocolate is a complicated process of aeration, blending and kneading.

The chocolate we eat is made from cocoa mass with other ingredients added in, including additional cocoa butter, emulsifiers (most commonly soy lecithin) and sweeteners. True dark chocolate doesn’t contain any milk solids, whereas milk chocolate obviously does. White chocolate is most often cocoa butter, sugar, palm oil and soy, with no cocoa mass, and as such isn’t technically chocolate. That percentage on the label of a chocolate bar tells you the chocolate-to-sugar ratio: a 70% bar, for example, contains 30% sugar. The higher the percentage, the less sugar and therefore the less sweet the chocolate. Unsweetened chocolate is 100% cocoa mass with no sugar whatsoever; terms like semisweet and bittersweet have no defined meaning.

Finishing chocolate bars with toasted coconut.

After the chocolate is thoroughly conched, it’s tempered and molded. Tempering chocolate is a finicky process that involves carefully warming the mixture to the perfect temperature, then holding it there for a prescribed period. Tempering stabilizes the cocoa butter molecules, and gives premium chocolate its snap and sheen. (If you’ve ever opened a chocolate bar to find white spots on it, fear not – it’s simply the cocoa butter rising to the surface. It’s called bloom and is totally harmless.) The tempered chocolate is poured into molds and chilled to produce its final form, then packaged for sale.

As with all our food, chocolate production is a complicated and troubled subject. Most chocolate in the world is grown and manufactured under terrible conditions and is kind neither to the planet nor the workers involved. Spend a little more on your chocolate – look for single-origin and direct trade! – and avoid any with palm oil or soy lecithin, both of which are environmentally devastating. As a rule, chocolate from Latin America is a better choice than that from Africa. Quality chocolate costs more for good reason: read the labels and vote with your dollars.

Wishing everyone an imaginary tropical vacation this week, or at least some good chocolate.

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