A Brief History of Chocolate and the Flour-less Torte
Although the flour-less torte, made by GateauOChocolate, wasn’t the first chocolate creation, it’s still a historic mark in the history of chocolate. And, the history of chocolate isn’t brief, it spans many centuries and cultures.
Used extensively in Central America by the Mayans and Aztecs, the seeds of the Theobroma cocoa tree (Theo translates to God, and Broma to food, in classical Greek) were consumed as a bitter-spiced beverage for religious and social events. To attest to their value, the seeds were also used as a currency. Following the discovery of the new world, Spanish conquistadors brought the cocoa back home.
It did not take long for Europe to discover its pleasures and virtues.
The rapid rise of interest in cocoa made this exotic product a luxury that swept many royal courts. Spain tried to maintain cocoa trade as a state monopoly, however it failed due to piracy. For two centuries after its introduction in Europe, chocolate was virtually reserved to high nobility and royalty.
Its exclusivity created a mystique, enhanced by the rituals and refined objects that were used for its consumption. Chocolate was a symbol of wealth and power. Its popularity only increased when it met its indispensable companion, sugar, which is another tropical import.
In the 18th century, Europe’s cocoa consumption expanded to the merchant class. Its growing demand required larger cocoa and sugar plantations, which are both labor-intensive crops that fuel slavery.
By the mid 19th century, the invention of mechanized roasters, grinders and mixers (conches) facilitated cocoa processing. The chocolate bar was born. What few had only consumed as a beverage became a solid food that was available to many.
Chocolate’s appearance, texture and quality became close to what we know today. Driven by creativity and bigger profits, master chocolate makers quickly incorporated the plentiful native milk and nuts to chocolate, making it more expensive. This opened the door to new products, which were supported by creative advertising posters.
In the 20th century, cocoa became a commodity, and developed broad appeal. To gain market share, companies competed on price and had to exert heavy pressures on the farmers and the countries exporting raw beans. This pressure was often at the detriment of quality.
Wide price fluctuations and production quantities challenged cocoa farmers and the economies of the producing countries, which are dependent on cacao exports.
Cocoa is a tropical crop, which is grown around the world, just north and south of the equator. The trees thrive in a warm, humid climate, preferably in the rainforest, under a tall canopy that filter the intensity of sunlight. The trees produce spectacular, delicate flowers.
After pollination, they form large, oblong ribbed pods, containing 30 to 50 seeds. Protected in a natural jewel case, the seeds are covered by a white spongy and sweet material, which contributes to the indispensable fermentation process.
When ripe, the beautiful pods display a palette of beautiful colors; violet, brown, green, deep red and vivid yellow, depending on the varietal and growing area.
Like vineyards, some regions and tree varietals are better than others. As a result, some areas consistently producing superior beans become known as ” Single Origin Chocolate,” meaning that the beans are coming from a specific area and must meet quality standards. A combination of microclimate soil and varietals, create ideal growing conditions, producing higher quality beans and distinctive flavors.
While originating in South and Central America, today’s largest cocoa plantations are in Africa and produce the bulk of the beans.
Quality beans are also dependent on the post harvest care of the beans on the farms. After removing the seeds from the pods, and while they’re still covered with the sweet protective cotton-like material, the beans are stacked in aerated wooden boxes to allow a natural fermentation. Then, the beans are air dried for conservation.
Those critical first steps are performed on the farms, and are the first steps in a complex process to transform humble seeds, into a magical product.
The best beans are highly sought after and sold directly to buyers, who work for premium chocolate producers. The secondary beans, or the beans coming from traditional extensive plantations, go to middlemen that blend the beans in large chocolate processors with beans from other regions. This process is used to make a standardized industrial product.
The land, climate, harvest’s timing, fermentation and drying, are critical and cumulative steps in producing quality cocoa. Greater education of the farmers, and their exposure to the final product, has contributed vastly to the improvement of the quality of the beans and to the farmer’s income.
As extraordinary as it may seem, many cocoa farmers had never tried the final stage of the product they had grown and cared for until recently.
The transformation of cocoa beans to chocolate begins with the roasting process. Still covered by a tough skin, the beans are exposed to heat and roasted like coffee. This releases and enhances their natural flavors. The beans are then crushed to remove the skin and the nibs (broken pieces of the inner bean). Then, the beans are ground to a fine paste containing a fat (cocoa butter) and solids (cocoa powder).
By pressing the paste, referred to as “the masse,” the butter is separated from the powder. Mixing cocoa butter, powder and sugar, while changing the proportions, the master chocolatier adapts the final product to the wanted texture, taste profile and cost.
The important conching step consists of slow mixing and turning for several hours, until the chocolate is maintained in a warm fluid stage. Conching turns very tiny particles into even smaller, spherical uniform pieces. This process gives high-quality chocolate its silky smooth mouth feel, and it helps release subtle flavors.
Single Origin Chocolate
Like good wine, premium chocolate is the end result of the health of the land, care of the trees, nurturing of the beans, education of the farmers, and the complex processing that reveals the specific natural flavors of the cocoa.
Recent efforts by several nonprofit organizations, and small quality-driven chocolate producers, are developing a growing market for premium and extra premium chocolate.
As a result, plantations and the participating farmers are improving their quality of life, and improving the land on which they depend.
As a result, unique heirloom varietal trees, which were on the verge of disappearing, are being preserved, while, the farmers and plantations become more environmentally conscious.
Serious efforts are being made to reduce child labor abuses and run off pollution by dangerous pesticides, which are harming those who apply them and the plantations.
The demand for high quality, organic, or “Rain Forest Alliance certified” chocolate is creating an incentive for farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural methods. It fosters a natural entrepreneurial and self-reliant spirit among people who may have lacked those opportunities.
Flavorful and healthy food comes from healthy soil. Furthermore, by choosing to use organic ingredients, you vote for small organic farmers, less pollution, and better tasting, healthful products.
We are grateful for your interest, and hope that with a better understanding of the industry and our values, it will only add to your enjoyment of “GateauOChocolat.” We hope you will share our cakes with your friends and enjoy them with family.