I'm thrilled that my friend Denise Chiavetta agreed to visit the Mojito Literary Society and share her passion (addiction) to chocolate. Aside from being a die hard foodie and member of the artisan slow food movement, Denise is a professional futurist. She studies trends in technology and their potential impact on industry and culture. In other words, Denise is a badass. Her knowledge of the history and processing of chocolate is quite impressive.
* You have a Tshirt that reads "life begins after 70 percent." Can you explain what that means?
I've had people ask me all sorts of questions about it, such as "is that the passing grade for the bar?" I'm not sure according to what governing body, but chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids is "dark" chocolate, the consumption of which is one of the very good reasons to be alive.
* Can you give a quick overview of the process of making chocolate?
Cacao pods are filled with a sweet pulp and bitter seeds (cacao beans).
After harvest, the sticky insides of pods are scooped out and allowed to ferment. Fermentation is what gives the beans their "chocolate"
characteristics, so it's an important step. Fermented pulp easily washes off the beans so they can be thoroughly dried and eventually roasted. Roasted beans are milled/ground into chocolate liquor. The next critical step is conching, which is basically more mixing, usually with other ingredients (sugar, milk, etc.). The longer you conch, the smoother the chocolate. To cut conching corners, some makers add an emulsifier like soy lecithin.
Finally, chocolate is tempered, which is basically controlled cooling to control crystallization. Tight tempering ensures a snappy but smooth, glossy chocolate.
*What makes a good chocolate?
The same things that make good wine......varietal, terroir, handling, storage, etc. The vast majority of chocolate produced in the world is the forastero varietal, a very hardy and productive plant that produces bitter and not very complex beans. Rarer is the fragile and less productive but sweeter and more complex criollo varietal. Trinitaro is a hybrid of the two.
There are so many points "farm to table" (or in this case, maybe farm to
finger) to "show some love" rather than "take the money and run" that significantly impacts quality. Chocolate love includes harvest of ripe pods, ample time for fermentation, even and careful roasting, patient conching and tempering, etc.
*If I wanted to be a chocolate connoisseur, what terms would I need to know?
I would say definitely conching and tempering. While a crisp snap emits from the chocolate you just broke in two, say "this glossy, snappy chocolate was perfectly tempered."
*Why is it important to know the source of cocoa beans in your chocolate?
For two reasons. Since the early steps of the farm to finger process (varietal planting, harvesting, fermenting) happen at the source, knowing who's hands were involved and what decisions they made makes for a quality experience. The second reason is that like all tropical commodities (coffee, sugar, chocolate) from the southern hemisphere, production is steeped in a tragic history of exploitation of people and land. Purchasing a chocolate with a fair trade certification ensures chocolate spreads love.
*Recently you've become interested in how the Aztecs made chocolate. Can you explain a little more?
Having heard for so many years (from the common wisdom fairies) that chocolate was "the food of the gods" for the Aztecs, I decided to research the topic. Actually, it has a much longer history, beginning with earlier mesoamericans, but they all fermented, roasted, and ground the beans as is still done today. Each culture ground in a preferred spice combination. Hot peppers are still popular today, but they also used musky and savory spices.
Chocolate was always mixed with hot or cold water to make a drink. A significant aspect of what defined chocolate and the consumption experience was the froth created by pouring the chocolate liquid from one container to another from a fair height, i.e. standing while pouring into a vessel at your feet. Specialized vessels were used to pour. The froth could even be removed for final seasoning of the liquid, and then put back on. I really would like to go back in time and see what the froth produced by a palace expert was like :-)
* Who are some chocolatiers you would recommend?
There are so many, it's fun to explore. The empty wrappers currently strewn in my office are Amedei (Italy) , Coppeneur (Germany), and Vosges (USA).
*Is there a question I should have asked but didn't?
When is the best time of day to enjoy chocolate? Anytime :-)