The cacao tree – source of the beans which give us chocolate – is from the genus ‘Theobroma’, or ‘food of the gods’. So there’s a signal to the marvellous and mystical properties of chocolate in its very name. Chocolate is a treat, a food of ceremony, celebration and special occasions. Even now when it’s widely accessible, it still has a special aura, whether enjoyed for itself or in recipes both simple and complex.
Why is chocolate so special? It’s a plant product that is able to be processed into a unique and luxurious food that, once again, is transformed as it melts into silky richness in our mouths. Eating it connects with its history and origin as a food and with the particular journey of each bean and bar. It’s romance and ravishment rolled into one and I am happily addicted.
On this page, we’ll dig into the history of chocolate, learn how it’s made and used, discover different varieties and – of course – share plenty of ways to enjoy it.
The cacao tree is indigenous to Central and South America, grown from Mexico in the north to Peru and Brazil in the Amazon basin. The first mentions come from Mayan artefacts, dating to the first millennia AD. They drank it, traded it, buried dignitaries with it and used it as a currency. When the Spanish came to the Americas in the 15th century they quickly latched onto the ‘black almonds’, as they thought of them, and by the 17th century, chocolate was an important food in the Spanish court. Initially a rare and exotic ingredient, colonial expansion led to cacao being cultivated in West Africa – particularly Ghana – and elsewhere. West Africa is now the world’s biggest source of chocolate. Until the end of the 18th century, chocolate was mostly consumed as a drink but new processing methods led to eating chocolate becoming more popular in the 19th century.
Farming and harvesting
Cacao trees are evergreen, a little like apple trees in appearance, and grow to around seven or eight metres. They are delicate trees: they love shade when young and are susceptible to disease. The hardier Forastero variety is most commonly cultivated now, often interspersed with banana and coconut trees which offer shade and an additional cash crop. Cacao flowers sprout directly from the tree trunk and some of them develop into the colourful oval pods which contain the precious beans. When they’re ripe, the beans are collected, split and allowed to ferment, an essential step in developing flavour, then dried. It’s a very labour-intensive process. Every pod is precious! One tree’s annual crop is likely to yield just 450 grams (16 oz) of chocolate.
The process of turning cocoa beans into delicious chocolate is a process that’s rarely seen so I was thrilled to take a tour at Ratio Cocoa Roasters to uncover the whole process.
In this tour, we see the whole process of making chocolate from bean to bar in a small but brilliant factory, showroom and cafe in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s inner north.
Our guide is Melbourne’s own Debb Makin, one of the most interesting people I’ve met, with a background as a zoologist, wedding planner and – always, always – chocolate lover. Read more about her in my review of Ratio.
Dark, milk, white and raw
Dark chocolate contains 50 to 90 per cent cocoa solids plus cocoa butter and sugar. Milk chocolate has had milk solids added to it, usually in the form of milk powder. It generally has 10 to 50 per cent cocoa solids plus cocoa butter, milk and sugar. White chocolate doesn’t have any cocoa solids at all; it’s made from cocoa butter, dairy and sugar. ‘Raw’ chocolate generally refers to chocolate made from unroasted cocoa beans. As roasting is an important part of the process of developing the flavours traditional chocolate, it tends to taste quite different.
You say cacao, she says cocoa…
The words ‘cacao’ and ‘cocoa’ are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m going to sort this question out once and for all, but let’s have a go! Cacao is a tree that grows cacao flowers and cacao pods which contain cacao beans. However, cocoa is sometimes used in English to describe all these things instead. Cocoa is what’s left when cocoa (or cacao!) butter (the fat) is extracted (pressed) from chocolate paste. The paste can then be dried into what’s sold as a powdered cocoa. However, these days, ‘cacao’ is often used to mean raw cocoa powder made from unroasted cocoa beans. Similarly, cacao butter (raw) is distinguished from cocoa butter (roasted). However, all cacao beans are fermented before they’re dried and shipped and fermentation can raise the temperature of the cacao beans to over 50°C (122°F) which is technically not ‘raw’. In terms of the taste and utility of most recipes, unsweetened cocoa and ‘raw’ cacao can be substituted for one another.
Chocolate and health
Dark chocolate is rich in flavanols, a plant chemical that may have benefits for heart health.
Some people say unroasted cacao butter and cacao have more health benefits: enzymes, antioxidants and so on. I’m sceptical about this; the only decent study I’ve seen does suggest that unroasted chocolate retains antioxidants but doesn’t make any conclusion about the effect this might have on humans. As with many health claims, the dosage may be the kicker. This is also an interesting discussion.
My conclusion is as follows: enjoy the chocolate that you like best in moderation and eat lots of vegetables every day!
What is tempering chocolate?
Tempering chocolate is the process of heating it up to around 50°C (122°F) then allowing it to cool to around 29°C (84°F). In doing so, the fat in the chocolate crystallises in a stable form, allowing it to set with a crisp, shiny, glossy snap. It’s the chocolatier’s essential trick to creating chocolate truffles and decorations.
Fun facts about chocolate
- The annual harvest of one cacao tree will only make 450 grams (16 oz) chocolate.
- The Swiss eat the most chocolate, around 8.8 kg a year. Australians lag behind at only 4.9 kg. Come on, folks, are you doing your bit?
- Annual retail chocolate sales are around US$100 billion every year.
- The largest chocolate Easter egg was made in Italy in 2011. It weighed 7.2 tonnes (7 tons) and had a circumference of nearly 20m (64 ft).
- Chocolate to love: as well as Ratio, above, I am a big fan of Koko Black (pictured), the amazing classes at Savour School and the hot chocolate magnificence at Mork.
- This Heleh Goh recipe is from her book, Sweet, co-authored with Yotam Ottolenghi. The addition of banana brings moisture and subtle flavour - it's a winner! As Helen says, “The secret is to slightly under-bake the cookies, which keeps them soft and fudgy.” These are eat-them-up cookies, not put them in the biscuit tin cookies. You definitely have Helen’s permission to eat them all on the day they’re baked!
- Berry-infused vinegar brings a tart finish, both undercutting and highlighting the richness of the chocolate ganache. The contrasting savoury topping ensures these are a very special treat that you will be delighted to have in your repertoire. (Your friends and family will be glad too - expect requests to keep making them!)
- Chocolate and peanut butter are besties so I thought they might like to hang out together in a layered tart! The tart is fun to make - we build it upside down then flip it right at the end. The concept is along the lines of Reese's peanut butter cups, but I've added a crisp biscuit base.
- Ever-exuberant pastry chef Anna Polyviou always adds a bit of theatre to her desserts and her spin on a classic tiramisu is no different, delivering excitement and surprise but in a super simple recipe. Served in a martini glass, the liquid elements are combined in a cocktail shaker in front of your guests then poured into martini glasses. It's a fun way to deliver a great dessert.