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.

Let’s make hot sauce!

When it comes to pantry staples that are simple and inexpensive to make rather than buy, hot sauce should definitely be high on the list. I can’t speak for your household, but we enjoy a lot of hot sauce and related spicy condiments (salsa, pickled peppers) over here, and it’s much more fun to make our own than to buy these.

Homemade hot sauce only requires three ingredients.

Unlike yogurt, hummus and bread, which are also simple and inexpensive to make, store-bought hot sauce typically isn’t full of terrifying ingredients (that said, always read the ingredient label). The most popular hot sauces in the U.S. include Tabasco, Frank’s, Texas Pete and Cholula, all of which are variations on the classic aged chile, vinegar and salt combination. Sriracha, which has only recently staked its claim on the American hot sauce market, is a sweeter hot sauce; sugar is its second ingredient. But as with anything you choose to make rather than buy, hot sauce can be infinitely customized to your own tastes.

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How to make kimchi

A couple of years back, we all got really into probiotics. In the simplest terms, probiotics are beneficial microorganisms – bacteria and/or yeasts – in our surrounding environment and within our bodies that help keep us healthy. Since so many of us are regularly on antibiotics, which kill off both good and bad organisms indiscriminately, it makes sense that our bodies would be deficient in helpful bacteria. The rise of serious digestive-related disorders, too, indicated that our microbiome was in serious trouble.

Many of these health issues can be attributed to the fact that the vast majority of food we eat is completely, totally dead. I don’t mean dead in the literal sense, like how we turn a sad CAFO pig into even sadder pork chops, but dead in the sense that all life has been processed out of it. Instead of eating slightly muddy carrots, freshly dug, we eat “carrot chips” and drink “carrot juice,” which have been subjected to high-heat processing and irradiation and a million other complicated techniques, rendering that carrot into what Michael Pollan would call “an edible food-like substance.” It’s no longer actual, nutritious food; we’ve just been told it is.

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The sourdough bandwagon

Here’s what N and I have learned in the five-odd weeks since this madness really kicked off: the things we’ve been doing for years – growing food, baking bread, keeping chickens, buying only secondhand, cutting our own hair – are exactly what all of America seems to want to do right now. Listen up, everyone: we’re cool and we’re on-trend and we are probably influencers too. We’re going to call ourselves influencers, anyway. We’d like to influence you to bake sourdough, mostly because no one can find any yeast yet people still really, really like fresh bread.

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Really, what’s better than fresh bread and good butter?

I’m not at all surprised by the gardening and the bread baking, truly. People have extra time on their hands and want to do something both purposeful and satisfying, plus spring has arrived in most places and it’s a pleasure to be outside. But the sourdough thing? That did take me by surprise, as sourdough has a reputation for being so tricky and difficult and obsessive and a little weird because people name their sourdough starters and refer to them as pets. But then of course all of the country’s commercial yeast disappeared somewhere so it’s only natural that everyone would turn to sourdough, and people also need new pets in this time of isolation, kind of like Wilson in Castaway, so it all sort of makes sense.

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You can pickle that

Are you swimming in zucchini and other summer squashes right now? We are, and grateful for it; if not for squash and kale and basil, I wouldn’t have grown much of anything this season. But what to do with all that zucchini, once you’ve grilled it in thick slices and tossed it with pasta and made overly-sweet not-at-all-healthy zucchini bread and so on? Those plants keep producing, even the surprise volunteers that showed up in the potato towers and the compost pile. Well, you could pickle that.

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What to do when the zucchini are threatening to take over.

The Quiet Farm household isn’t a huge fan of traditional cucumber dill pickles. I’ve tried them all the ways over the years – even traditional barrel fermentation, which meant that I once dumped five gallons of moldy, slimy cucumbers and their brine into our overwhelmed compost pile back at our old house in Denver – and it’s never been something that we’ve loved. (One of my sacrosanct rules of preserving: only make what you’ll actually eat.) Our altitude means that canned vegetables have to be processed much longer in a boiling water bath so pickles are almost always soggy; limp, overcooked cucumbers aren’t my thing. Also, even though I adore sharp, acidic flavors, standard vinegar pickles are sometimes just…too much.

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Farm update: January 14

We’re striding into 2019 full of vigor, purpose and excitement. We’ve erased and rewritten our Quiet Farm project whiteboard – it has three columns, Now, Soon and Later – and although we’re totally overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks, we’re looking forward to an incredible year. First on the list is to finish our home renovations, then to build out our commercial kitchen so we have an amazing space ready for classes and workshops and events. Over the course of the year we’ll continue to share everything we’re up to here on Quiet Farm, and we’re so glad to have you along for the journey!

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Late last year I made my first batch of fire cider, a legendary homeopathic folk remedy popularized by the herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. Recipes vary, of course, but most include raw onion, garlic, horseradish, ginger, lemon, chiles, apple cider vinegar and honey for sweetening. I also included lots of turmeric, a powerful anti-inflammatory, plus extra citrus for the vitamin C boost. I usually take a shot each morning and follow it with lots of water; this brew is intense and can definitely upset sensitive tummies! But I believe firmly in supporting our immune systems with good food and potions like this and ideally not getting sick at all. (Oh, and wash your hands with hot, soapy water. All the time. Regular handwashing is the single most powerful weapon we have against colds and flu.)

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Farm update: November 19

Hi there! Is it cold and snowy where you live? We think everyone in the world is getting lots of snow except us, but really that’s fine. It has been remarkably chilly, though, so most of our activities and projects are indoors these days.

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Nom nom nom.

We are loving our fall CSA share; each week we receive delicious vegetables that we’d never find in our grocery store. Those sweet, colorful carrots were devoured raw; the delicata squash was roasted and served over the arugula, and the tatsoi went into a spicy stir-fry with local pork. We highly recommend joining a CSA in your community if you have the option.

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Like a Roomba, only better.

Our new pet looks like a Star Wars extra, but when you have this much painting to do, a sprayer makes things a whole lot easier. There is a learning curve with a paint sprayer, but once you’ve mastered set-up and clean-up it saves hours. Pro tip: do not skip the cleaning and storage instructions. If you store the sprayer without cleaning it properly, you will regret it. Trust us on this.

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