Lather yourself up in massive quantities of cheap chocolate, but you’ll find little love in it. The stuff you find wrapped in golden paper is a far cry from the celebrated bean of Theobroma cacao and just contains less of it.
Nakusp’s own Jennifer Cross is keen on keeping the content and quality high and alluring.
“I love chocolate’s mysterious, magical side,” said Cross. “There’s nothing like chocolate. It’s not like a regular food, it inspires creativity, it relaxes you, it’s euphoric and opens you up.”
That’s right, there are brain-changing compounds in chocolate. Chemically, there’s caffeine, theobromine, compounds that act like cannabinoids, and phenethylamine. Theobromine is like a smaller version of caffeine for humans, but for other animals like dogs and horses who metabolize it more slowly, it can be toxic or lethal. Don’t feed fluffy your chocolate bar.
Chocolate also contains compounds that act like the stuff in marijuana that makes people feel tall. Unlike pot, though, the compounds in chocolate mostly just delay the breakdown of one of the body’s own fun drugs (anandamines) rather than introducing more of the stuff.
Chocolate’s “love drug,” phenethylamine, has been given wide media exposure, unlike the fact that unless you’re taking a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (like those found in some kinds of medications) you’re unlikely to feel the force of its effects. And if you are taking a MAO-inhibitor, eating a bunch of chocolate can have not-so-lovely consequences, like increasing your blood pressure. So, like any drug, chocolate’s effects and interactions can be complex.
According to new text Wikipedia, ancient texts describe ceremonial or medicinal cacao mixtures, and it was smoked with tobacco. It wasn’t just for everyone. Like the vote in times gone by, chocolate was taken only by men and considered toxic for women and children. But eventually the food of the gods found its way to the West and out to the whole world, although first contact with the stuff didn’t result in an instant love affair. Apparently the first Europeans weren’t as interested in the beans, even though they were used as a form of currency in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations, as they were in gold, but eventually it caught on.
In this age of globalization, the vast majority of the cocoa beans come from Forastero trees. Forastero means “foreigner,” whereas Criollo is Spanish for “native” and the beans produce a finer, more complex taste. Criollo trees used to be the predominant source for cacao two centuries ago, but due to their lack of resistance to disease, the hardier Forastero has outgrown them in usage. A third cultivar, Trinitario, is a hybrid of the two that originated in, surprise, Trinidad. Trinitario beans are turned into fine/flavour cocoa, while Forastero are used for bulk production.
Bean to the bar
But it’s not just bean to bar, the process of creating cocoa involves sweating the pulp and beans into fermentation, causing the beans to lose their bitterness. Then, the cacao beans are roasted, and voila, they are then dubbed cocoa beans and ready for more processing.
The beans are then winnowed which removes the shell and germ, leaving the nibs which can then be dutched (alkali is added) or not. Cocoa that isn’t dutched may react to food acids like those found in buttermilk or vinegar and turn reddish, which could be the reaction behind the colour of red velvet cake (having baked an undutched chocolate cake, I can attest the only difference was the presence of a strange metallic taste and a disappointing lack of red).
Milling the nibs then results in cocoa liquor, particles of cocoa suspended in cocoa butter. Next, the liquor is pressed, which separates cocoa butter and solids which are then pulverized into cocoa powder.
Chocolate, the stuff we love to love, is a combination of cocoa butter and liquor as well as sugar, an emulsifier, milk, and whatever flavourings are wanted. From there, it’s formed, sculpted, and enjoyed.
“There’s not a lot of cacao in regular chocolate bars,” said Cross, who tries to keep her chocolate as pure as possible, wanting to mould and create chocolate experiences for people.
The dark side of the bean
Hundreds of years after Theobroma cacao was found by Europeans in what is now known as the Americas, the majority of cocoa beans now come from Africa. Over 70 per cent come from that continent, and some of its production has been linked to hazardous work conditions that may involve child labour as well as workers enslaved through human trafficking. The taste of chocolate made sweet with cane sugar means it is also tangled with the brutal history of slavery found on sugar plantations.
Like farmers everywhere, becoming certified organic is another question cacao growers face, with the cost of certification being prohibitive for some producers.
“At this moment, there seems to be no consensus on whether certification is positive for farmers or not,” a report on a 2012 study by the International Cocoa Organization stated. “Certification is considered by some as an adequate tool to promote sustainability in the cocoa value chain and to improve the livelihoods of cocoa farmers. Other actors involved in the sector seem to be less optimistic on the net benefits that certification offers at farm level and highlight the burden that it can bring in terms of required investments.”
More and more, chocolate makers are moving to ethically-produced chocolate, and people realize the cheapness of their chocolate comes at a great cost to people labouring to create the cocoa for a sweet treat. Jennifer Cross is very aware of the politics of chocolate, and looks forward to the day when her business is large and stable enough that she can go meet her chocolate producers in person.
“To be honest, my chocolate is probably a mix of small family farmers and larger sources,” she told the Arrow Lakes News. Like any fledgling business, she is trying to keep costs down while she gets established, with an eye to improving the quality of her sources as she goes.
Awareness is growing, and the company who produces the chocolate Cross uses, Callebaut, started a sustainable chocolate farming project in 2012 that aims at increasing cocoa quality, farmer income and quality of life for farmers.
How much chocolate?
With all its seductive charms, chemical, culinary and otherwise, how much chocolate does a person require? Some self-professed chocoholics say a day without the stuff is a day wasted, others require it only once a month, others even less frequently. A serious habit could be costly, and tasters could be tempted to go for quantity over quality. But there’s more than just tastebuds in the picture, says Cross.
“It’s soul food, it’s good for what ails you,” the chocolatier said, and how can you put a price on that? It’s the age-old balancing act, but the love put into a box of happy moments made by a local talent wanting to spread joy in the world is likely worth the money.