Celebrating Chocolate

February 11, 2014

The great Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus christened the cacao tree…food of the gods…and boy, was he right!

We’ll never know what nirvana is…well, most of us won’t anyway…maybe the Dalai Lama (but I hear he loves chocolate, too)…but chocolate is about as close to ambrosia that we mortals will ever experience.

For most of us, a mere taste of chocolate on our tongue can trigger a flood of fond memories…our first Hershey Kiss, licking chocolate ice cream off our wrist during the summer, dipping our fingers into rich chocolate frosting meant for a birthday cake. But hardly any of us think of chocolate as good for us…sinful, surely…decadent, definitely…but healthy? Never…but just this once, you’ll love being wrong.

A little history…The origin of cacao is a subject mired in some controversy, but modern science has shown that it first grew in South America, specifically in the Amazon basin and in what is modern Venezuela. Historians have not established how, when or why cacao was carried out of these regions, but the plant’s first migration in its world travels lands it in Mexico and Central America. And this is not some obscure historical footnote in culinary history…this is where someone looked past the delicious gooey white interior of the cacao fruits to the almond-sized seeds enclosed in each pod.

The first Mesoamerican discoverers of chocolate were pioneers in many ways…from cultivating and growing the plant in an ecologically sound way, but they arrived at very sophisticated culinary possibilities. Combining chocolate with herbs, flowers, honey, chilies, they created flavors and effects that made even our modern uses for chocolate pale in comparison.

As time carried on and cacao was transported and traded all over the world, each culture that got its hands on this magnificent food added its own unique twist. Some say that the Swiss have a lock on the art form known as chocolate, but there are those who swear by French confections…and then there’s me, enchanted by all chocolate, but particularly Mexican, South American and Italian…they have discovered ways to keep the bitter characteristics of chocolate right alongside the sweet additions.

But does chocolate have a place in a healthy diet? Isn’t it loaded with fat, sugar, dairy, additives, preservatives and caffeine??? Won’t the mere mention of the word ‘chocolate’ cause us to fall over, dead by some subversive energy lurking in this humble pod? Well, if your idea of chocolate is the cellophane wrapped junk you pick up while standing in the checkout line at the supermarket or convenience store…you just might keel over.

The chocolate I am talking about is not only food of the gods, but can actually be good for your health. Recent studies show that dark chocolate can actually do everything from protect our heart to alleviate depression and symptoms of both PMS and menopause. A rich source of antioxidants and other trace minerals, chocolate is one of the richest sources of magnesium in the plant kingdom (which is why it’s so great at relieving PMS). On top of that, chocolate has compounds that release serotonin in the brain…our ‘feel-good’ hormone…the hormone that makes us feel contented and relaxed.

But the energy of chocolate is what I love the best. Tropical in nature, chocolate brings a warm and dry energy to our bodies. With its astringent character, chocolate is the perfect catalyst for digesting fat and protein (which is why it makes the perfect mole sauce…a traditional bitter chocolate sauce served with fatty meats like pork or fowl…even with vegetarian ‘fatty’ foods). This warm and dry energy aids our bodies in moving stagnant energy, alleviating sluggishness, but relaxing the body at the same time.

But what about the caffeine? Trace amounts only, my friends, so unless you are supremely sensitive to the effects of this natural stimulant, you won’t be kept up at night from the chocolate you had at lunch.

So how did chocolate get such a bad rap? Well, it’s not the chocolate…in its pure state, chocolate is bitter. Originally consumed as a hot liquid, either thick or thin, laced through with hot spice and cinnamon, chocolate tasted nothing like the cloyingly sweet candy we call chocolate today. This version of chocolate, however, had little appeal for European taste, so sugar was added…then butter…and frankly, it was downhill from there. As chocolate became a common food, the quality of it was compromised, artificial flavorings added to ‘create’ a depth of flavor and chocolate became the enemy of our health.

All that aside, there is a way to enjoy chocolate without compromise to your health. First and foremost, try to remember that something this rich and delicious is calorically dense…and calorically dense foods will make us fat if we eat them in excess…period. Next, if the chocolate you are eating is loaded with refined sugar, dairy fat and other additives, it has crossed the line from good quality chocolate to junk food…deadly for our health…oh, sure the occasional treat at a restaurant won’t kill you or your dietary patterns, but just remember that ‘occasional’ means now and then, not ‘since the last occasion.’

Choose a chocolate that is dark and bitter, either unsweetened (you can sweeten it yourself as you like), grain sweetened or 70% or more meaning there is little sugar in it. Choose a chocolate free of dairy products…there is no good news about dairy products, sorry. And of course, choose a chocolate free of additives or preservatives.

And you can go one step further. Choose certified organic chocolate to ensure that you are treating yourself to a pesticide-free indulgence. And if you are feeling particularly conscientious, look for chocolate that also carries the label ‘fair trade.’ This practice was spawned by the unfortunate circumstances that the people who grew and processed chocolate were unable to grow anything else, resulting in starvation. Fair trade allows for these farming communities to become self-sustaining. Great, huh? You get to enjoy and do some good in the world.

Chocolate is so great to work with…richly flavored, sensuously textured and beautifully enhanced by strong flavors. Some wonderful chocolate partners include cinnamon and hot chili peppers…these two stimulating flavors lift the flavor of the chocolate onto the tongue with a delicious sparkle. Orange zest balances the fatty nature of chocolate with a touch of astringent sour taste to create a yummy zing on the tongue. Some chocolatiers are hearkening back to ancient culinary triumphs and are adding lavender, jasmine and other flowers and herbs to chocolate to add a touch of perfume to the decadence…intoxicating, truly.

So when you hear that chocolate is the food of the gods, you can nod knowing that ancient wisdom is right on.