09.29.09

Four Chocolate Questions Answered

Mary Goodbody goes inside the world’s obsession with chocolate for answers to four eternal questions—from why we like it to why some chocolates are so pricey.

Restaurateurs know it, little kids know it, and brides know it: The world loves chocolate.

Most restaurants sell more chocolate desserts than any others on the menu combined; small children beg their parents for a bag of M&Ms at the supermarket checkout; adventuresome brides request chocolate wedding cakes because they know their guests will love it.

Why is it possible to buy a Hershey Bar for a little more than a buck, and yet indulging in a pound of Noka Vintages Collection truffles can set you back more than $850?

As a nation we eat more than 12 pounds of chocolate annually per person, and while that’s small change compared to the Swiss, who gobble up about 22 pounds for every man, woman, and child, that still means each of us spend about $50 on chocolate every year.

So why the chocolate fixation? Chocolate has little nutritive value, but it packs a wallop in the foods-that-make-you-feel-good department, and there are few foods about which we feel as passionate.

Ed Engoran, co-founder of Choclatique, an artisanal chocolate company based in Los Angeles, calls our love affair with the stuff an “obsession that runs deep, well beyond the love for the ‘sweetness’ of ordinary candies or desserts.” Just thinking about chocolate, he says, can evoke the most “pleasurable responses from the human body. Chocolate is warm, nurturing, fun, and sexy, and always tastes simply magnificent.”

1. Why do we like chocolate? As Tish Boyle, editor of Dessert Professional magazine, explains, “Chocolate has long been known as the ultimate comfort food (second only to macaroni and cheese), and despite the shaky economy, its relatively low price makes it a perennially popular mood elevator. Chocolate may be considered a luxury, but it’s an affordable one.”

Some say chocolate can give people the same sense of well being that is brought on by falling in love. Engoran claims that “chocolate has the ability to lift low spirits and give you a euphoric feeling.” And, he continues, “One thing is for sure: It’s hard to imagine life without it.”

2. What kind of chocolate do we like? Most people prefer milk chocolate for eating out of hand because of its creamy mouthfeel and mild flavor. The milk proteins that make milk chocolate so delicious to eat also make it tricky to bake with, and so it does not show up in a lot of recipes.

Many chocolate aficionados find themselves moving beyond milk chocolate to embrace dark chocolates. These are the chocolates that may also be called bittersweet or semisweet and which contain no milk solids at all—and not always a lot of sugar. Some think dark chocolate is an acquired taste, but those who like it have a true passion for it.

Boyle, who also is the author of The Cake Book and writes the blog Tish Boyle’s Sweet Dreams, says dark chocolate in particular has been getting a lot of attention recently because of its “perceived health benefits—think antioxidants and flavanols—and because of its intense flavor profile. Consumers are looking for premium, high cacao-content chocolates, and manufacturers are actively marketing these percentages, pushing the envelope with ultra-bitter 85 and even 90 percent chocolates.” Until now, most chocolate lovers required dark chocolate that was 65 to 70 percent cocoa solids—the cocoa butter and dry cocoa particles in the chocolate—so chocolate that is 90 percent cocoa solids is a much more intense experience.

As well as making chocolates that are very dark indeed, manufacturers are indicating the country of origin for the cacao bean on the label. Not surprisingly, the countries with the most panache are not those that produce the bulk of the beans, but others, such as Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, and some Caribbean islands.

3. Why do some chocolates cost so much more than others? Although chocolate is an “affordable luxury” in a general sense, some brands demand a king’s ransom.

Much like coffee beans, cocoa beans are sold by commodity markets. The global price of chocolate spiked in the 1970s, after which it declined a little, only to recover somewhat in the early ’90s. Prices have never reached the highs of the 1970s, but they have remained pretty constant since the 1990s.

But why is it possible to buy a Hershey Bar for a little more than a buck, and yet indulging in a pound of Noka Vintages Collection truffles can set you back more than $850? In large part, the difference comes down to production methods. When Milton Hershey made his first Hershey bars at the turn of the last century, he took a page from Henry Ford’s playbook and produced them using an assembly line—a system still practiced today but with far more modern technology. On the other hand, Noka chocolates and others of their ilk are handcrafted and use only the most expensive chocolate.

To understand the wide range of prices, it’s necessary to know a little about how chocolate is made. It’s a complicated process that begins with how the beans are grown, harvested, fermented, dried, blended, roasted, and then made into chocolate. All of these steps contribute to the final cost to the consumer, and because chocolate makers are an exacting breed, they tend to be demanding. They begin with the bean—much as coffee buyers do—and judge the quality of their product on the way it’s handled from there.

When the cocoa beans are roasted, their shells crack to expose the nib, which is then ground into a thick paste. A little more than 50 percent of the paste is cocoa butter, which is extracted and saved to add to the chocolate later. The paste, now called chocolate liquor or chocolate mass, is rolled to refine the particle size and then ingredients are added in varying amounts, depending on the desired final outcome: cocoa butter, sugar, and milk solids.

Finally, most chocolate is conched. The chocolate is put in large conching machines that spin it though whirling blades to knead it for hours. During this time moisture evaporates, volatile acids dissipate, the texture becomes ever silkier, and more cocoa butter and other emulsifiers may be added. The best chocolates are conched for as long as three days, while others are conched only for half a day.

All this might be more information than the average chocoholic needs or wants, but these are the steps that contribute to the final price of the chocolate. From there, it’s up to the manufacturer how it’s used, packaged, and marketed.

4. How are cocoa trees grown? Cocoa trees are finicky. They only grow within 15 to 20 degrees of the Equator, like lots of shade, lots of water, and constant warm (not hot) temperatures. Once they are established and happy, they will grow to 20 to 25 feet and continue to bear fruit for many years. Their fruit is encased in pods, each 6 to 10 inches long, which when broken open yield 30 to 40 seeds. These seeds are what we call cocoa or cacao beans.

Because cocoa trees like shade, they grow among other, taller trees, and the farmers who tend them have learned to plant a variety of trees that yield a number of crops. These include breadfruit, banana, and rubber trees, whose canopies shade the cocoa trees. Most cocoa trees are cultivated on small farms that grow various crops, rather than on monolithic plantations, where it would be challenging to shade the trees properly. They lend themselves to biodiverse agriculture as well as to agroforestry, a style of tree farming that promotes diversity.

While it’s believed cocoa trees originated in South America, most of the cocoa beans produced today are grown in the West African countries of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Cameroon. And yet the trees are cultivated in every country within 15 degrees of the Equator, so a virtual cocoa belt encircles the globe. Even so, some experts predict a global shortage of cacao beans as demand keeps growing.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Mary Goodbody is a cookbook writer and editor who has worked on more than 65 books. Her latest books include Antojitos! , Barcelona , Osteria , Lobel's Meat Bible , and Morton's the Cookbook . She is senior editor for Cookstr.com.