One warm August day in Oaxaca, southern Mexico – within the very shadow of the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Monte Alban – I watched as a container of chocolate beans still hot from roasting, were added to a well-worn piece of aged machinery in which they would be mixed, ground and churned into a paste. Nearby were trays in which a previous batch had already cooled into thick slabs of unsweetened dark chocolate. When we departed that sweet-smelling shop that day we carried with us a chunk of solid, unsweetened chocolate destined to be one of twenty ingredients cooked into a thick Mole sauce by our host family in Puebla. I had also filled my pockets with a handful of unprocessed chocolate beans harvested from a nearby mountainside where the descendents of the ancients had been plying their trade for several thousand years. Those purloined beans stand in a mason jar beside my keyboard today as I write. They have been the inspiration for years of personal fascination, wonder and study. The invading Spaniards who introduced those magical native “beans” to the European world could not have envisioned a day in which 3.5 to 4 million tons of cocoa per year might fall short of world demand!
While the Swiss consume nearly 20 lbs. of chocolate per person each year with Germany running a close 2nd and the U.K. and Ireland in 3rd place, the United States barely escapes being dead last with just over 9 lbs. per capita. What’s more, Americans eat a lot more milk chocolate (our teen-agers at 90%) than other countries where the virtues of dark chocolate, high in cacao content and with far less sugar, milk-fats and other additions, is favored. We now know that raw cacao is rich in antioxidants that relax the cardiovascular system and strengthen the body’s resistance to cancer, and is one of nature’s richest sources of magnesium, so deficient in modern diets.
Among dark-chocolate aficionados a bar of gourmet dark chocolate is a “gift” to be sampled in small – probably one-ounce portions – not a dessert to be consumed all-at-once or even in a single sitting. First, there is the smell as it is held under the nose, then the sound of the snap as a small piece is broken off, and pleasure in feeling the glossy shine of the surface which has been conched in an ages-old process once done – as the name suggests – by rubbing with a conch shell from the deep. As the piece melts on the tongue, it should be held against the roof of the mouth for a moment where a collection of taste buds plumb the combination of nuanced flavors and the intensity of chocolate at its melting best.
While it is possible to find some examples of fine imported bars locally, some of the best come from abroad. Among the favorite sampling bars Shirley and I have compared are Green & Black’s Dark 85% made in Poland, Amedei Toscano Black 63% from Tuscany and Michel Cluizel Noir 72% from France – the latter the 2016 world champion in voting by the experts. To our surprise, we also chose it as our 1st choice. All of these and their close European competitors are made without soy lecithin emulsifiers and milk fat, and are never alkalized. Several contain either criollo or trinitario cacao beans, thought to be genetically linked to the oldest and finest of the earth’s “originals”. Not only do these chocolate-makers insist on organic growing practices, but in a part of the world where child and slave labor is common pledge to reject any ingredient not in fair-trade compliance.
We also enjoy such American labels as Ghirardelli Intense Dark 60% and Godiva Chocalatier 72% although packing some additional ingredients.
Chocolate is the world’s favorite flavor, and I am a story teller. How can I resist such a clear invitation?
Even though expensive, the Michel Cluezel Noir (lower left) and Toscano Black (lower right) are worth it.