Although the cocoa tree and beans have been around for centuries, up until the mid 1800’s the only form of chocolate commercially available was drinking chocolate. In the early 1800’s Italians had started the process of making block chocolate, but it was crumbly and coarse. In 1879 the Swiss Rodolphe Lindt started his unique water-wheel powered factory in the Kanton of Bern. Lindt knew that if the chocolate was constantly moved back and forth in a vessel, a process called conching, it would result in smoother chocolate. He also knew that by adding additional cocoa butter to the chocolate would further increase its smoothness and the ability to melt on the tongue. Another Swiss, Daniel Peter was responsible for pioneering and perfecting milk chocolate in 1875.
What is good chocolate?
Good chocolate starts from good cocoa beans. The cocoa tree originated in South America, and by the 1800’s was planted all over the world, in countries on or as near to the equator as possible. There are three basic varieties of the cocoa tree, the Criollo, which is found naturally in Ecuador and Venezuala. The Criollo is a delicate tree, susceptible to weather fluctuations, with yields lower than Forastero the more common variety. However the beans from the Criollo tree are finer in flavour, and reserved for the high-quality chocolates, only 10% of the entire world’s cocoa production are from Criollo trees. The Forastero tree and it’s hybrids are commonly found in West Africa . This tree has good resistance to weather fluctuations and is easier to harvest.
The third variety is called Trinitario, which is the a hybrid of the two, and can have various characters of both parents. Often a Trinitario bean is spoken of as having a strong or weak Criollo influence.
These trees are unique in that at any given time the tree will blossom, as well as have green and ripe fruit growing directly from it’s trunk . The trees require shade and are usually planted alongside other crops such as banana, coconut, or citrus trees. Each tree will yield only 20- 30 fruits, which when ripe take on a yellow or red-brown colour. The hard outer shell is split and inside are anywhere from 20 to 40 cocoa beans, always in 5 rows, imbedded in a sweet, white paste. A typical tree will yield per year a half to two kilograms of dry cocoa beans, with the life span of the tree being 30 – 40 years.
TYPES OF BEAN
After harvesting one of the most important procedures that will determine the final flavour to take place is the fermentation process. Here the beans are separated from the skins and white fruit and mounded into piles and covered with bananna leaves. Daily the piles are uncovered and stirred or moved around to encourage even fermentation, then re-covered, and repeated for up to 6 days. This process removes any fruit residue still clinging on to the beans and from the heat generated in the pile any sprouting of the beans is stopped. It also changes the flavour profile from bitter to its typical intense, rich flavour. A properly fermented Criollo bean will be gold-brown, and a Forastero bean violete brown. After fermentation the beans are dried, where they will loose up to 60 % of their weight. The beans are spread out on large cement patios, much like coffee beans, and raked constantly under the hot sun to encourage even drying.
After the drying, the beans are bagged and shipped to various chocolate factories around the world.
At the factory, the beans are cleaned and roasted, much like coffee. Great skill is used to blend varieties of beans and to roast them at particular stages. Once cool, the beans are ground through various rollers until a cocoa paste, or cocoa liquor as it’s commonly called in the industry, is produced. The paste is then fed into hydraulic presses and the cocoa butter is extracted. The resulting cocoa cake, which still retains about 15% cocoa butter is broken up and milled into powder.
This is where the experience, reputation and skill of the chocolate producer comes in, the blending: Cocoa powder, cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla and soya lecithin, an emulsifier, are blended in huge vats and the mixture agitated or conched for anywhere up to 72 hours. As a rule of thumb the longer the conching is, the finer the chocolate.
There are numerous influences that determine the final product: Type and origin of beans, proper fermentation, proper drying, length and intensitivity of the cocoa bean’s roast, the blending of various beans, the addition and amounts of sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla, milk or cream, and the length of conching. The above methods are only general descriptions, there are many finer and little discussed methods and techniques used. Each factory keeps their methods and recipies very near and dear to their hearts.
What to look for in a good chocolate:
-The “snap”. A good chocolate at room temperature should have a distinctive snap when broken. Poor quality chocolates that has substituted other fats for cocoa butter will not do this, nor will chocolate that has been poorly tempered or poorly stored.
-The “shine”. Good chocolate will have a even glossy shine, this is a result of proper tempering. Chocolate that has dull grey streaks has not been properly tempered , or has been stored in a warm place with frequent temperature fluctuations and will not have a good “snap” and will have a gritty mouthfeel. Chocolate that has been stored in the refrigerator will develop a “sugar bloom” where the sugar has separated from the chocolate and rises to the surface.
-The “mouth feel”. Good chocolate should melt on the tip of your tongue very smoothly. When you rub your tongue against the roof of your mouth, it shouldn’t feel gritty, which would suggest insufficient conching. Chocolates made with substituted fats will leave a greasy and heavy feeling in your mouth.
-The “Taste”. Taste is a very personal thing, but generally a good chocolate should not taste overly sweet, have harsh or bitter flavors, strong vanilla/ artificial vanilla flavors, or have rank or stale flavors or odours.
-Packaging. All good quality chocolate is wrapped in aluminum foil or packaging with thin aluminum incorporated into it, thus preventing any foreign odours from permeating the chocolate.