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.

The meat of the matter

The past two months have exposed a great number of frailties in systems we’ve long taken for granted. From child care to health care, we’ve learned firsthand that most – if not all – of our societal structures are built on debt-ridden quicksand. Nowhere has this fragility been more apparent than in our food supply, long the envy of less-developed nations.

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Mmmm…meat in tubes. Delicious.

If you’ve ever traveled in the Caribbean or Africa or Asia – really, anywhere outside of the U.S. and Europe – you know that a standard Western grocery store is a thing of miracles. The glossy, perfect produce, appealingly stacked in lush displays. With artificial thunderstorms! Acres of cold-storage, displaying hygienically shrink-wrapped packages of beef, pork, chicken and fish, none of which resemble the animal they once were. The deli abounds with cheeses and olives and overflowing dishes of prepared foods, enticingly displayed on beds of ornamental kale.  Aisle upon aisle of boxed mixes and snack foods and sodas and candy and cookies and chips, plus thousands of cleaning products and toiletries and other various and sundry items, all brightly-colored and stocked in abundance. A standard Western grocery store never has bare shelves, because that violates its very reason for existing – that we have so much, we can replenish each item before it’s even made its way to the check-out.

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The best books about food

Apparently this country is electing a president this year and probably electing some other people too, though over here at Quiet Farm we’re doing our damnedest to ignore the entire circus. One thing that still surprises (and infuriates!) me immensely in every single election cycle is that we never, ever discuss national food policy. Neither side even mentions it in passing, unless a hotdish fundraiser happens. We talk about defense, and education, and occasionally the climate crisis, and of course health care, and yet we never discuss the single issue that unites every one of us, regardless of party affiliation. We never talk about the fact that if we changed our food system, we’d naturally change our health care system for the better. And that changing our food system would be a huge step towards repairing our devastated planet. Changing our food system would also mean more military readiness, since we’re now too fat to fight. And our children would gain a better education if they had access to better nutrition for growing brains and bodies. We always ignore the food, when it’s the one issue we should talk about more than any other.

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How to save the world

Last Friday, millions of people around the world marched as part of a “global climate strike.” The march was intended to draw world leaders’ attention to the climate crisis in advance of the U.N. General Assembly taking place this week in New York City. While the sight of millions of mostly young people taking to the streets to make their voices heard is heartening in theory, teenagers in expensive sneakers carrying smartphones and pithy signs aren’t going to change the perilous trajectory we’re on.

Despite the fact that we are by far the world’s largest consumer and by extension the world’s largest polluter per capita, the U.S. is the only country in the world still debating the very existence of climate change. While other countries have their heads down working to find solutions, we’re still arguing over whether this is actually happening, and if so whose fault it is. (Spoiler alert: ours.) This disparity will be on full public view this week at the U.N.; once again, we’ll look like idiots on the world stage, a role in which we’re becoming increasingly comfortable.

Here’s the painful truth: we can’t protest the idea of large corporations destroying the planet, because we are the reason those corporations exist. If we didn’t buy their products – if we didn’t upgrade our iPhones every year, if we didn’t rob each other at gunpoint for thousand-dollar puffer jackets, if we didn’t accept and then dispose of two million plastic bags per minute – these corporations wouldn’t be able to plunder the planet. We are the problem, and by that logic we also have to be the solution.

Mental health professionals have reported a sharp uptick in the number of people seeking treatment for depression related to the environmental catastrophe we’re facing. It’s a massive, complex problem, and it’s easy to feel hopeless when confronted with its scale. On a personal level, I’ve long since graduated from severe eco-anxiety and now find myself teetering on the cliff of abject climate despair. I don’t think we’re going to be able to fix this, but we can’t choose to do nothing and watch the world implode around us. With that in mind, here are five things we can implement immediately that might just make a difference.

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The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

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Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

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Things that are great, vol. 2

Modern lives contain way too much negativity, a cycle perpetrated by a fear-mongering media looking to sell us stuff we don’t need. In the interest of combatting that mentality, then, we present our second “Things That Are Great” link round-up, highlighting news stories and trends that we think are worth celebrating. (Read our first positive link collection here!)

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Photo clearly not taken in Colorado.

If you had to guess at the largest irrigated crop in America, you might well assume corn or soy. You’d be wrong; however; according to a 2015 NASA study, lawns represent about 40 million acres in the U.S., or about three times as much land as corn. All this grass comes at a steep price: 9 billion gallons of water per day, plus hundreds of millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides and other chemical treatments, all of which eventually end up in our water sources. And yard waste, including grass clippings and leaves, represents the largest single occupant of our landfills, too. All this for a crop we can’t even eat? Ridiculous.

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Thankfully, though, forward-thinking companies are working to change that antiquated attitude. All across the country, edible landscapes are “unlawning” America. Converting pointless, thirsty lawns into healthy, local human food? Yes, please. These edible landscapers often face a lot of resistance from restrictive HOAs, but progress is still being made, albeit slowly. If you’d like to replace your lawn with native plants, check with your local extension agent – they’re often the best source of information for what will grow best and still look nice in your region.

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RV book club

Pretty much every RV we’ve encountered on our travels thus far has had a television, and most carry a satellite dish. We’ve seen some TVs on the big rigs that would cover an entire wall in our tiny home, if we could even get the thing through the door. For us, though, no TV. And no Netflix, either, because even though we have a device on which to watch, most parks don’t have Internet service strong enough to support streaming. (Serious RVers also carry Internet boosters.) So we read, and that’s not intended as a complaint.

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A selection of reading material at an RV park.

We packed an eclectic selection of books, of course, before throwing everything else into boxes and jamming it all into a rented storage unit. We happened to be camped at the fairgrounds when our local county library held their semi-annual book sale there, so we grabbed a few then, too. And most every park we’ve stayed at has had a book exchange, typically located near the laundry facilities. I’ll confess that most of the books at the RV parks are not to my taste – they lean heavily towards bodice-rippers, legal thrillers and Stuart Woods – but truly, I’m happy when anyone is reading actual paper books and I am not passing any judgment on these. And there are occasionally diamonds in the rough. So what are we reading these days on the RV?

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How to recognize a superfood

Now that we potentially all have attention spans less than that of a goldfish – can’t believe you’re still reading this! – it is apparently more important than ever that we distill information down into small, digestible bits. One way we do this is by labeling everything, especially food. This is so we can recognize it, so we can boast about it, so we can post a photo of it, so we can pay more for it. So we can say, Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just eating my superfood salad over here. Goji berries, acai, spirulina, wheatgrass…the list of trendy branded superfoods goes on and on.

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Purple foods are rich in anthocyanins, a specific type of antioxidant.

Western society, particularly America, has some serious food issues. We are collectively overfed and undernourished. We all know that obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases are on the rise, and yet still we consume on average more than twice the calories we need in a day. We’re overwhelmed by choice and information and the constant barrage of marketing thrown at us every second. We’re no longer able to think for ourselves.

“We are a society obsessed with the potential harmful effects of eating, according to the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Paul Rozin, renowned for his theories on the role that fear and disgust play in modern food culture. Overwhelmed by the abundance and variety of foods in our groceries, and flooded with competing health claims, we can’t help but make instinctive food-purchase decisions, subject to the whims of the latest trends and health scares. No wonder that, when confronted with ambiguities in health-based marketing claims, we fill in the gaps with inaccurate inferences, as the Cornell University economist Brian Wansink found in a 2006 study. Food companies bragging about supposed health benefits, such as low calorie count or low cholesterol, create what the influential study dubbed a “health halo,” a vague but positive glow that temporarily relieves our food-centered anxieties—at least long enough to get through checkout.”

-Michael Fitzgerald, Pacific Standard, May 26, 2017

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Sowing the seeds

As recently as three or four generations ago, the vast majority of seeds planted in home gardens were saved from year to year. Gardeners learned what plants thrived in their unique microcosm, and they might have saved seeds from the earliest beans, or the largest cucumber, or the most delicious tomato. Season after season, these saved seeds protected plant diversity, acted as a hedge against famine and in many cases were so treasured that they were sewn into hems of immigrants’ clothes when they traveled – voluntarily or not – to new lands.

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A few samples from the Quiet Farm seed bank.

Now, we think nothing of buying seed packets every growing season. Wintertime brings glossy seed catalogs to the mailbox, filled with mouth-watering descriptions of intensely flavorful tomatoes, trendy kalettes, or spicier peppers. We page through these during the dark, cold days, eagerly anticipating the chance to get our hands in the soil once again, and often we order much more than we need. Most home gardeners have a wealth of seeds left over from previous years, and even this abundance doesn’t stop us from buying just a few more. They’re just tiny packets, we reason. A few more couldn’t hurt.

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The FAQ Series: Eggs

One of the things we’ve missed most since we started traveling just over a year ago is our own flock of backyard chickens. When we decided to set off on our big trip, we sent our six ladies up to live on a farm in Weld County (thanks, Tammy and Chris!), and we still get eggs from that farm occasionally. We’re really looking forward to keeping laying hens again once we find Quiet Farm.

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I consider eggs to be one of the world’s most perfect complete foods. They were vilified for so long – remember when we all only ate egg-white omelettes and entire boxes of Snackwell’s fat-free cookies? – but more and more evidence demonstrates that quality eggs are an essential component of a healthy diet. They’re loaded with good fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, and the whole “eggs cause high cholesterol” myth has thankfully been debunked. (Our bodies produce the vast majority of our own cholesterol; what we eat has little impact on our cholesterol levels, though what we eat has a massive impact on every other aspect of our health.) The key, as with every other animal product, is to purchase the best eggs you can. And this is of course so much more difficult than it seems, because what are the best eggs?

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Just a tiny corner of the egg section at our grocery store.

We no longer purchase supermarket eggs; we buy them from local feed stores, where backyard chicken keepers sell their excess, or we get them from farms we volunteer on, or from friends with flocks. (In the winter, natural egg production slows down dramatically; eggs are a symbol of spring and rebirth because poultry start laying again when the days get longer.) Recently I found myself staring at the egg case at our grocery store, and I understood completely why people find food shopping so overwhelming – especially if you care about animal welfare, the environment and/or your own health. How in the world are you supposed to know which is best?

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The answer in this case is none of the above, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s revisit and debunk a few egg myths, shall we?

  • There is no difference in nutrition or flavor between white and brown-shelled eggs. Shell color is determined by the breed of chicken and nothing else. Egg producers and grocery stores figured out that customers think brown eggs are better, so they charge more. And we pay it. Many small farmers keep Araucanas or other “Easter Eggers,” because they lay turquoise, pale blue or seafoam green eggs, and they charge a premium for these eggs. Gorgeous, to be sure, but no nutritional benefit.

  • Very few words on egg labels are regulated. Natural, free-range, pastured, cage-free, farm-fresh? These mean nothing, and egg producers can use them on any carton. The only labels that are regulated are organic and non-GMO, and even those are sketchy (you get to hire your own inspector!). And if there is any sort of pastoral farm scene with a red barn and a white picket fence, you know for certain those hens lived in a crowded, artificially-lit warehouse.

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The mouse may have been vegetarian, but the chicken certainly isn’t.

  • Chickens are NOT vegetarians. If you see “vegetarian-fed” on an egg label, you know for an absolute fact that those hens never had outdoor access. Chickens are omnivores, like humans, and they’ll gladly eat bugs, worms and mice. They’re foragers, which is one reason gardeners love them – they keep the pest population under control. “Vegetarian-fed” simply means “these chickens never foraged because they lived inside for their entire miserable lives.”

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Unrefrigerated eggs in a German supermarket.

  • American eggs are kept refrigerated, while those in most of the rest of the world aren’t. When eggs are laid, they’re coated with a natural protective bacteria. The USDA requires commercial egg production facilities to wash and sanitize (i.e. bleach) all eggs, which removes this protective coating and hastens their deterioration – hence the need for refrigeration. This is because the factory farming system in this country produces decidedly filthy eggs, and the USDA has decided that washing the eggs is better than potential foodborne illness. If you buy eggs from a neighbor or local farm, store them unwashed in the refrigerator. This will extend their shelf life; wash the eggs just before you crack them.

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  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels. 
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.

(I will keep repeating this until everyone in the world knows it to be true.)

  • Eggs from true free-range flocks are nutritionally superior. They’ve been repeatedly shown to have higher levels of omega-3s, plus more vitamins A, D and E. Plus, they’re actually lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, even though we all know that eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels, right?

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  • Laying hens have the worst lives of any factory-farmed animals. They spend their entire lives in a space less than the size of a standard sheet of paper, and they cannot perform any of their natural activities, including preening and dust-bathing. They cannot even flap their wings. Thankfully, their lives are mercifully short, about eighteen months (compared to a natural life expectancy of eight to twelve years).

Back to our original question: which of these eggs are best? Friends, we like to deliver truth here at Finding Quiet Farm. And the truth is, if a certain egg production facility is big enough to appear on the shelves of your grocery store, they’re almost certainly a battery operation. Major supermarket corporations need a guaranteed quantity of eggs delivered on a reliable schedule, and anyone who has kept chickens knows that true free-range poultry cannot be counted on to do anything reliably, except escape from their fenced area. So these operations that sell eggs to your store are large enough that their hens can’t be free-range, but because those labels aren’t regulated, you can’t do anything about it.

And please remember: just because those eggs are “organic,” it doesn’t mean the birds had a good life. Battery hens can be fed certified organic feed so that their eggs are worth more to the customer, but the hens still lived a horrific existence. Organic means nothing when it comes to an animal’s quality of life. It simply means that no pesticides were used in their feed.

What’s the answer? If you’re going to spend money on good food, upgrade your eggs first. Find someone with backyard chickens, or buy from a local farm. Lots of small, local farms keep poultry flocks, or they know someone who does. Or get your own backyard flock! Remember, you vote every time you spend money, and cheap eggs aren’t good for chickens, the environment, or your health. All of these are worth the extra pennies.