Excuse me if I come across a bit jittery. I am just coming down from quite the sugar high. I feel like a kid who greedily ate too much Halloween candy, which when you aren’t a kid anymore sadly results in a quicker then normal heart rate and a sore stomach.
Today we had our much anticipated chocolate tasting class. This means six hours of everything and anything chocolate. Our professor, Mirco Marconi, is an expert in the study of chocolate and focused on teaching us not only the history of chocolate but also on the processing from plantation to bar.
We learned that chocolate was originally consumed as an unsweetened beverage by the Mayans. Since they did not know of sugar until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, the beverage was originally flavored with vanilla, chili peppers or a red seed called achiote. After the Spanish conquest, sugar began to be added and chocolate slowly, over the centuries, developed into what we know today.
Turning cocoa beans into chocolate involves a handful of steps. After the cocoa pods are harvested, the beans are removed and undergo spontaneous fermentation, either on banana leaves laid out in the sun or in wooden boxes. The goal of fermentation is to use up the thick, gluey substance that coats the beans inside the pods, to reduce the astringency of the beans and to begin to develop aromatic compounds that will influence the final taste of the chocolate. The beans are then gently dried for one to two weeks to reduce their water content.
At this stage they are typically shipped to the chocolate factory for processing. The beans are roasted and then winnowed, which means the shells of the beans are removed and the beans are broken into smaller pieces called nibs. The nibs are then ground into a paste that is made up of cocoa butter and cocoa solids called liquor. Sugar and sometimes vanilla is added and the mixture is refined to remove any grittiness. The mixture can also undergo a process called conching, which is essentially a long lasting kneading of the chocolate mass at a very hot temperature for 36 to 72 hours to lower the moisture content, reduce sour flavors, smooth out the chocolate and better develop aromatic compounds. Finally, the chocolate is tempered (the melted chocolate is heated and then cooled to stabilize the fat crystals, making the chocolate shiny and glossy) and molded into bars.
After our lecture, a whirlwind tasting of 27 different single origin and dark chocolates ensued. We tasted chocolates from all over the world, some mainstream and some more high-end, which showcased just how diverse chocolate can be. The standout for me was the Dos Rios bar from Utah-based Amano Artisan Chocolate. A 70% cacao, single-origin dark chocolate, it is one of the best and most unique chocolates I have tasted. Using cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic, the chocolate has the surprising aroma and flavor of Earl Grey tea. The pure chocolate taste is made more complex with flavors of bergamot and spices. Yet all of these flavors come naturally from the beans itself, no flavors are added.
There are just a few sacrifices you occasionally have to make when you are getting a degree in food culture. Enduring an chocolate overdose is one of them. Was it worth it? Absolutely.