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An Introduction to the Sublime – Chocolate

Honey…truffles…wine…all hailed as food of the gods at some point in world history. No food, however, is more deserving of the title than chocolate, the aromatic, creamy, rich, dark substance that many people simply cannot live without. Even its name signals its divinity. Derived from a plant whose official botanical name is “Theobroma cacao,” which translates like this: “Theo” means gods; “broma” means food.

The chocolate that earned this moniker had many devotees throughout Europe but was quite unlike any of what we know as chocolate today, although it was enticing in its own right. Because of its association with ethereal pleasure, it’s little wonder that many consumers of chocolate believed it to be an aphrodisiac. Surely it’s this belief that led to the time-honored tradition of giving chocolate to your beloved, conveying affection along with desire.

It wasn’t always this way with chocolate. In early 1600s Europe it was, in fact, considered a medicine. Prescribed in liquid form, its agreeable flavor contributed to the spread of myths (and truths) concerning its beneficial properties. From settling the stomach, to hangover recovery, digestion aid to fasting counterpart, chocolate seemed to work according to one’s intention.

The psychological effects of chocolate are profound—the cravings for this food spawned the term “chocoholic” with many people unable to resist its charms. What fires such compulsion? There are many delicious foods in nature; what’s so special about chocolate that it can influence our sense of wellbeing so dramatically?

The truth is that, for all its yumminess, chocolate can trigger the production of opioids, chemicals that produce feelings of mild euphoria, as well as the feeling of being “high.”

Through the ages, chocolate remained a prerogative of the wealthy until well into the 1700s, despite the fact that systemic planting of cacao trees in Dutch, English and French territories meant that the raw material was readily available at better prices than ever in history. The problem lay with processing, which remained unchanged since the Aztecs and required considerable labor.

Fermented and roasted cacao nibs were hand-ground into chocolate paste after a long process of stone rolling until they were reduced to a powder. The powder was heated, melting and becoming cocoa butter, allowing for the incorporation of other ingredients, like sugar, nuts and fruit. Once the mixture was soft, it could be pressed into cakes or bars.

This labor-intensive process was used throughout Spain and Italy until well into the 20th century, but mostly by artisanal chocolate producers. While the French developed a hydraulic machine to grind cacao into paste, it was the British that modernized the production of chocolate bars.

Fine chocolate as we know it today is smooth, rich and mellow in flavor. But up until the 19th Century, chocolate was usually coarse and a bit gritty. In fact, Modena, Sicily is known to this day for exactly this style of chocolate, which has come back into fashion.

The transformation of chocolate to the product we adore is due almost entirely to the ingenuity of the Swiss. In 1867, a chemist named Henri Nestle discovered a way to powder milk. As a result, a fellow scientist named Daniel Peter experimented with chocolate using this powdered milk and voila! Milk chocolate was born. Smooth and creamy, its appeal was without limits. Every confectioner from Rudolphe Lindt to Jean Tobler, Suchard, Cadbury… and Milton Hershey built empires on this development to create the modern chocolate of today.

That’s how the dark side of chocolate was born. Clearly, the industrialization of chocolate production relied not only on ever-improving methods and technology, but on the availability of the raw cacao. World demand has resulted in the intensive cultivation of cacao throughout the region of the world known as the “cacao belt.” This humid, tropical region includes Nicaragua, Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, some Caribbean islands, Jamaica, Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. More importantly, this region also comprises West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Madagascar and Cote d’Ivoire) which produces more than 67% of the world’s cacao.

Intensive growing has brought problems to these countries, as you might imagine. Small farmers labor in isolation with little hope of bringing their product to market… or even the nearest port. They are at the mercy of mercenary brokers and major food conglomerates that set world cacao prices. The producers themselves are mired in debt as a result of unfair prices being paid for their product. The result is a corruption of the industry with many small producers turning to exploitative labor practices, including slavery and child labor to produce the product we crave.

It was America who came to the rescue of these exploited workers. In 2001, our House of Representatives voted for a labeling system that would assure consumers that slave labor wasn’t used in the production of the chocolate they’re eating. Of course, the industry fought back with an intense lobbying effort, claiming that labeling would hurt the small producers by leading to a boycott of all cacao. (Sound familiar, GMO-label advocates?)

A long process led to chocolate products being certified by Fair Trade, an independent group that certifies manufacturers and producers who make up democratically governed cooperatives and farms, where communities are sustained and thriving. Along with organic chocolate (which also prohibits the use of slave or child labor), consumers now have great options for choosing a delicious, luxurious chocolate that doesn’t involve the exploitation of people.

Organic chocolate also ensures that the product you are buying is of the best quality, with no pesticides, hydrogenated fats or other unsavory ingredients in your lovely treat.

Over the last decade, artisanal chocolate has come to shine in an industry inundated with junk food disguised as chocolate. From Europe’s traditional producers and trend-setters to the US’s Hawaiian cacao plantations, the world of chocolate is changing. Italy, particularly Tuscany, is enjoying another renaissance, this time in chocolate production. Perhaps the most promising sign of the changing tide to quality over quantity in chocolate is Green & Black, the iconic British brand started by Whole Earth founder Craig Sams and his wife, Josephine Farley. Developing a sample of 70% dark chocolate into a high-quality, bittersweet bar, Green & Black was born and was Fair Trade from its inception, earning the UK its first Fair Trade certification.

Because there are those of us whose lives are deeply enriched by chocolate and whose taste buds have been fired by savoring excellent chocolate products that are now relatively easy to find at market, the artisanal segment of the chocolate industry grows. Now that many small producers the world over can post their wares to websites with a worldwide audience, we can hope that confectionary giants will take the hint and react by improving their product—and adopting sourcing practices that guarantee a decent livelihood for the growers.

Then, chocolate will provide the sweetest of endings.

Oat Squares with Chocolate Glaze

I just discovered this recipe in a cookbook in Italy so I adapted and made it my own. It’s yummy and chewy and I think you’ll love it!

Makes about 20 squares

1 cup vegan butter substitute

¾ cup brown rice syrup

½ cup coconut sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup organic rolled oats

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

Pinch sea salt

Pinch ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ cup golden raisins, coarsely chopped

Glaze:

¼ cup unsweetened almond or oat milk

1 tablespoon brown rice syrup

1 cup non-dairy, dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325°. Oil a 9-inch square baking pan.

To make the base, melt butter substitute with syrup and coconut sugar until smooth. Stir in vanilla.

Combine oats, flour, sea salt, cinnamon, baking powder and soda and raisins in a bowl. Stir in the melted “butter” mixture and mix well. Spoon mixture into prepared pan and press evenly in the pan.

Bake until lightly browned, about 25-30 minutes. Allow to cool completely in the pan. Cut into squares and place on parchment paper.

Make the glaze. Place chocolate in a heat-resistant bowl.  Combine milk and syrup in a saucepan and bring to a rolling boil. Pour over chocolate and whisk until smooth.

Using a fork, dip into the chocolate glaze and make a criss-cross pattern across the squares. Allow to set before serving.

Chocolate Gingerbread

I just discovered this recipe in a cookbook in Italy so I adapted and made it my own. It’s yummy and different and I think you’ll love it!

Makes 20 servings

¼ cup dark non-dairy chocolate, melted

2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

Pinch sea salt

Pinch cracked black pepper

½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice blend (cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove blend)

½ cup coconut sugar

½ cup vegan butter substitute

½ cup spring or filtered water

½ cup brown rice syrup

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

½ cup dark non-dairy chocolate

¼ cup unsweetened non-dairy milk

2 teaspoons brown rice syrup

Preheat oven to 325° and lightly oil a 9 x 9 baking dish.

Over just simmering water, melt chocolate in a glass bowl until smooth and creamy.

Whisk together flour, ginger, baking powder/soda, salt, pepper and spices. Stir in coconut sugar and combine well.

Melt vegan butter with water over medium-low heat. Remove from heat and mix in rice syrup and vanilla. Stir into flour mixture until just blended.

Spoon half the batter into the prepared pan, spreading so it’s evenly distributed. Drizzle melted chocolate over the batter and spoon remaining batter over top. Bake for about 30 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned and the center of the cake springs back to the touch (or an inserted toothpick comes out clean). Allow to cool completely before cutting into squares and placing on parchment paper.

Make the glaze by placing chocolate in a heat-resistant bowl. Boil milk and syrup and pour over chocolate, whisking until smooth. Using a fork, drizzle chocolate in a criss-cross pattern over the top of each square. Allow the chocolate to set before serving.