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Know Your History: Chocolate

Chocolate History
Let's get one thing straight--all the gobs of history lessons in school that I've had are mostly forgotten. I remember bits and pieces, but really, I'm not going to start a conversation on the Boston Tea Party when I'm out with friends. Chocolate history, on the other hand, is most definitely a conversation-starter (I know this first hand). No hitting the books or taking notes necessary. Simply skim these few paragraphs and be a know-it-all the next time people start talking about chocolate.

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Before we dive into a mini-history lesson, let me take a moment to describe my chocolate. When we decided to bring our favorite chocolates, I wanted to buy my favorite brand, Frey. Frey used to be sold in the U.S. exclusively at Target, but suddenly (3 years ago) it vanished. Can someone please tell me what happened? Seriously, folks, this is not funny. Their white lemon/lime chocolate and orange chocolates were tangy, original, and melt-in-your-mouth smooth.

My Party Chocolate
1. Milka White Chocolate. Yes, depending on who you talk to, white chocolate is not really chocolate (as you will read in the history below). I'm not one to get hung-up on technicalities. Milka is known for it's smooth chocolate, but for me, white chocolate is just on the verge of too sweet to enjoy eating more than the tiniest bit. A bit more than plain white chocolate, I enjoy Lindt's coconut white chocolate. Whenever I make homemade New York Cheesecake, my secret ingredient is melting a whole bar of this into the batter.

2. Milka Alpine Milk with Hazelnuts. For those of you brave enough to venture away from a Hershey's Bar, you will be surprised at the quality of true milk chocolate. Milka, and other higher quality chocolate brands are selective about the cacao pods the choose and their process of refining chocolate, which means the overall taste will be much better. Milka's milk chocolate is smooth with just enough sweet to fully enjoy it. The hazelnuts add a fun texture and taste.

3. Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate. I truly enjoy all of Ghirardelli's chocolates, though perhaps their caramel-filled bars and dark chocolate the most. This bar is typical of a delicious, creamy milk chocolate.

4. Trinitario Extra Dark. Green & Black's is a fantastic chocolate company, but probably is more for dark chocolate lovers. I have had several bars in the past with strong fruit and flower notes, both around 50% Cacao (medium dark). This particular bar is 85%, which is the darkest you can get and it is still edible (for some people). I have hosted several chocolate nights for groups of up to 50 women, and it is quite amusing to watch them taste their 85% square (a tiny tiny square of it). Everyone I have talked with about this darkest of dark chocolate hates it, except my husband. If you ask him, he will tell you that his favorite chocolate in the world is 85% cacao (any fine chocolate brand will do). I do not mind the taste and enjoy a small nib after dinner. I will agree with my husband that if you have a serious chocolate craving, having something so dark such as this will help you kick-it almost instantly. A great after-dinner palate-cleanser.

Chocolate History

Chocolate is made from the bean that grows on the cacao tree. The first signs of its use were around 2,600 years ago in ancient Aztec society. Cacao beans were ground up and mixed with water and spices to make a rather beastly and bitter drink. Which is why they called it "xocolatl" (pronounced: ho-co-la-tol) meaning "bitter water." It was a drink for the highest classes only--kings and priests were allowed to guzzle the stuff, no dice for everyone else.

Fast forward around a thousand years. Christopher Columbus brought xocolatl from the Americas to Spain, but it got overlooked with all the shiny objects he brought back. Hernando Cortez introduced it again when he returned from America a while later, and--what luck!--King Ferdinand liked it. There are rumors that he mixed it with lots of sugar. After Spain declined in power, Daniel Peter of Vevey, Switzerland, experimented for eight years before finally inventing a means of making milk chocolate for eating in 1876. He brought his creation to a Swiss firm that today is the world's largest producer of chocolate: Nestle. In 1879 Rodolphe Lindt of Berne, Switzerland, produced chocolate that melted on the tongue. He invented the process of "conching," a means of heating and rolling chocolate for several days to the reduce graininess and drive off volatiles that cause bitter notes in chocolate’s flavor. Prior to this, chocolate had a very coarse and grainy texture, nothing like the smooth texture of modern chocolate.

Today, we make chocolate by allowing cacao pods from the cacao tree to ferment several days, followed by a good roast at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. The pods and outer shell of each bean is removed, and the inner nut—called the nib—is crushed and then heated again to melt the cocoa butter. Then it’s ground into a thick paste. At this point, what happens to the paste determines what kind of chocolate you’ll end up with. The paste is sifted through mesh, and the fatty part of the paste—the cocoa butter—is squeezed out in a huge press. If you squeeze out all the cocoa butter, what’s left over is pure chocolate liquor, which is the bitter cocoa powder, like unsweetened chocolate (or very dark chocolate). If you use pure cocoa butter, with none of that bitter chocolate liquor, you have white chocolate, which technically isn’t even considered chocolate, because it contains no chocolate liquor. By playing with various apportionments of this chocolate liquor and cocoa butter and adding other ingredients, you get the range of chocolate flavors we're used to seeing in stores today.

So why all the hype? Pure chocolate liquor contains over 300 natural chemicals specifically designed to make you feel good. A 40-gram serving of chocolate contains between 400 – 800 milligrams of flavonoids (milk has less, dark has more). Flavinoids are antioxidants, which are not only very good for you, but the particular antioxidants in chocolate--called procyanidins--work to relax the inner surface of blood vessels by increasing nitric oxide concentrations. Chocolate stimulates the secretion of endorphins, producing a pleasurable sensation similar to the "runner's high." Chocolate also contains a neurotransmitter, serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant. Other substances, such as theobromine and phenylethylamine—like caffeine—have a similar stimulating effect. This is why many people medicate themselves using chocolate, without even realizing it!

Check in tomorrow for the final and most important installment in our Chocolate Tasting Party series--Shrink's post on how to eat chocolate...

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