Chocolate's Backstory

Aah...another Halloween has passed. If you're an average American, you're now packing away the approximately $75 worth of decorations and costume items you purchased for the occasion, and packing away any leftover candy into the spare tire hanging around your waist. And, if you're a Millenial, you're stashing the $183 worth you spent and wondering why money is always so tight.

Being a tightwad and not all that excited about Halloween (Thanksgiving is my favorite), I only spent about $10 on two little pumpkins and a bag of Snickers, which nobody at all came by to claim. Kids eat anything with sugar, it seems, but after a certain age Snickers don't really satisfy after all because we want to spend our calorie budget on real chocolate. Good chocolate.

Photo by  Michał Grosicki  on  Unsplash

Much homage is paid to chocolate and always has been, since the time it was the hot beverage used by the Mayans and Olmecs of Mesoamerica as a ceremonial drink and aphrodisiac. The conquering Europeans never passed up anything in the New World that could be exploited, and they soon brought the drink back home, but most of us don't do our chocolate consumption in the hot-beverage form anymore. We love the solid stuff. The melt-in-your-mouth experience.

This one is a personal weakness

This one is a personal weakness

It turns out there's many a step between the Mesoamerican chocolate drink and the highly processed and shelf-stable Erdbeer-Joghurt Milka chocolate bar. Even before the Mesoamericans enjoyed their bitter, gritty brew there were several steps. These steps are outlined in detail many places, but I most recently encountered them in a fun little materials science book:


Not only did I enjoy this one, but my sixteen-year-old son tore through it as well(!). As you might guess from the cover, chocolate is only one of the materials Miodownik explores, but he appropriately titles that chapter "Delicious."

Okay, so chocolate's backstory.

The first thing you need to know is that raw cocoa pods off the tropical trees taste nothing like the food of our dreams. First they must be whacked off the tree with a machete. Then they're thrown in a pile on the ground to--basically--rot and ferment. This stops the seeds from sprouting and also creates chocolate's "fruity" notes, along with earthy and nutty and umami-ish ones. Then it's time to roast the beans, because everything tastes better roasted and caramelized, and the Maillard reaction reduces chocolate's natural bitterness.

If you're an ancient Mayan, just grind up the result, add water, and you're ready for your religious ceremony.

If you're a 19th century European, you'll want to press the cocoa butter out of the roasted beans, grind what remains down to cocoa powder, and then use that as a base for your hot chocolate.

If you're a Fry and Sons chocolatier at the beginning of the 20th century, you brainstorm adding the cocoa fat back in and making the world's first chocolate bars.

Good work, fellas!

Good work, fellas!

The bitter flavors of the chocolate get offset with 30% sugar and some milk, and a pernicious habit is born.

If you've been lucky enough to enjoy chocolate from around the world, you can confirm what Miodownik tells us about milk chocolate:

These days the type of milk added to chocolate varies widely throughout the world, andd this is the main reason that milk chocolate tastes different from country to country. In the USA the milk used has had some of its fat removed by enzymes, giving the chocolate a cheesy, almost rancid flavor. In the UK sugar is added to liquid milk, and it is this solution, reduced to a concentrate, that is added to the chocolate, creating a milder caramel flavor. In Europe powdered milk is still used, giving the chocolate a fresh dairy flavor with a powdery texture. These different tastes do not travel well. Despite globalization, the preferred taste of milk chocolate, once acquired, remains surprisingly regional.

Hearing that American milk chocolate has a "cheesy, almost rancid flavor" to foreigners is alarming, but I guess they always say you can never smell your own house.

The book spends some time describing the four types of crystal structures cocoa fat can be made to form, resulting in chocolate with higher or lower melting points and greater or lesser "snap." Whenever we melt chocolate at home and let it reform, it does so into Types III and IV crystals, which are "soft and crumbly and have no brittle 'snap' when broken." But let those types of crystals sit long enough, and they will transform into Type V, the most stable. You'll know when it's happened because your chocolate will have "bloomed," ejecting some sugar and fat and looking white and powdery on the outside. I've always thrown that chocolate out, and even knowing it's a harmless chemical transformation doesn't make me any more likely to eat it.

And finally, after flavor and sweetness and richness and "snap" and melt, chocolate endears itself with its secret, "psychoactive" ingredients. There's the caffeine, of course--a little. And theobromine, a stimulant and antioxidant that happens to kill dogs. And then there are the tiny amounts of cannabinoids, as in, the same ingredient that makes you high when you smoke dope. No wonder we love the stuff.

So think about all this, as you reach in the Halloween bowl for that snack-sized chocolate bar, that dumbed-down country cousin of what, when properly handled, used to be the food of the gods.