The more I know, the more I like. A brief chocolate tasting was very useful to better understand what a precious food chocolate is. To find out more, the first lesson was that chocolate should melt slowly in your mouth, so do not chew it!
Masters Paul De Bondt and Cecilia Iacobelli taught me this during a chocolate tasting in their laboratory-shop in Pisa, an obligatory stop for art lovers as well as for chocolate fans.
Before talking about chocolate we need to talk about cocoa. Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, partially fermented and dried seeds of the cacao tree, a small tree native to the deep tropical region of America.
The cocoa plants
Paul De Bondt explained to us that there are three varieties of cocoa plants of commercial interest. The Forastero variety, native to the Amazon basin, dominates the world market and is grown mainly in Africa and Brazil. The Criollo variety, the most precious and aromatic yet very delicate, is very rare and is grown mainly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Java. The third variety, Trinitario, is a hybrid of the first two. The world's largest producer of cocoa is the Ivory Coast, with 38% of world production. After fermentation, the beans are dried in the sun and shipped to processors. They are roasted, crushed, the shells removed and the remaining mass dissolved in what is called "cocoa mass".
Like in a movie flashback, the sweet and acidic smell of the cocoa fermentation came to mind, the cocoa beans being drying in the central square of Chuao town, in Venezuela, the bitter taste of cocoa mass, the dirt roads, the bare feet, and the beach near the cocoa plantation.
From the beverage to the chocolate bar
Cacao came to Europe for the first time from America thanks to Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés. At first, in Europe, chocolate was always served as a beverage, with the addition of vanilla and sugar. At the end of the eighteenth century, the first chocolate pralines had been made, but the chocolate bar business came about in the late nineteenth century with the industrial "conching" system.
The conching process consist of mixing the cocoa mass, cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla for a very long time. The chocolate is processed and well ventilated, in other to evaporate excessive acetic acid and other bitter substances.
The taste of chocolate we eat today depends largely on the type and quality of the cocoa, but also on other ingredients that are added. In artisanal chocolate, like Paul De Bondt’s, you only find cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, a little soy lecithin and natural vanilla.
Paul teaches us that cocoa is not always bitter, but to counter this the vanilla flavour is used to make chocolate using bitter cocoa varieties. A very dark chocolate pairs well with tea or with liquors like rum or whisky.
Chocolate is also an excellent ingredient for the preparation of some dishes. Dolceforte (sweet and strong) is one of the oldest and most typical ways of Tuscan cuisine to prepare meat using raisins, pine nuts, grated chocolate, candied fruit, sugar, flour, vinegar and a little water.
As well as being delicious, beloved chocolate proves to be a valuable ally to your health. It fights hypertension, is an excellent antioxidant and, not least, also has positive effects on mood. Moreover, dark chocolate increases blood flow to the brain as well as to the heart, so it can help you to improve cognitive function.
No excuses are needed. It's not just a matter of taste: chocolate is good for your health and makes you happy!