Cacao from the source. From foregone recipes to the latest in chocolate trends.
If you ask the average American what chocolate is made from they get this blank look on their face. Most people likely have no idea and haven’t even stopped to think where it comes from. Many people can come up with the word cacao but the closest thing to raw chocolate they have ever tried is bitter cocoa powder.
Last week I was in the Amazon rainforest doing kitchen garden workshops in Kichwa indigenous communities. While visiting each garden a woman gave me a small sack of roasted cacao beans. Ecuador is where the cacao tree originates from but it seems that it was in Central America that people first started consuming it. Even though cacao has been consumed for thousands of years it has only been in recent history that it has taken on the chocolate bar form that we know.
The Mayan people used to make a hot water based drink out of cacao called xocolatl which was much less processed and sweet than our hot chocolate. These cacao drinks were watery with cinnamon and hot chile peppers. They were also sometimes prepared with vanilla or peanuts and mixed with cornmeal to make a hearty porridge.
Xocolatl was the drink of the gods, a high calorie (which in that time this was a positive thing) delicious food with medicinal benefits, and a natural energy and mood booster. Cacao beans were so highly valued that they were traded as currency. It was the Europeans that began mixing sugar and milk with it and eventually producing the solid chocolate resembling what we know today.
Chocolate is made from the seeds of a brightly colored tropical fruit. The fruits are as big as a football and range in colors from purple to yellow to orange. The fruits contain a sweet yet sour floral tasting pulp around the seeds that is delicious (and tastes nothing like chocolate) but it
starts to break down just hours after being picked. In order to transform these seeds into chocolate the seeds must be fermented, dried, roasted and ground.
Ecuador used to be the largest producer of cacao in the world until the early 1900s when a fungal disease hit that would wipe out most of the nation’s cacao production. Now the great majority of cacao is produced in West Africa. Large companies like Nestle and Hershey
depend on slave labor to be able to produce cacao at the ridiculously low prices that we are used to paying ( read more here). The true cost of chocolate is much higher than what most people are willing to spend. The USDA says that chocolate must contain at least 10% cacao to be called chocolate so most milk chocolate that is consumed contains only eleven percent cacao, the rest is mostly sugar and powdered milk. Dark chocolate bars now are commonly labeled by what percent of cacao they contain. Most have between 60% and 80% cacao. I love dark chocolate and when I saw 100% dark chocolate for sale I made the mistake of buying it. It was oppressively bitter. I would trick people into eating it and eventually it became a game to see who could keep it in their mouth the longest without having to spitting it out.
Cacao production is making a comeback in Ecuador. New varieties have been developed as well as methods for controlling disease. Ecuadorian chocolate makes up only 4% of the world’s total chocolate sales but 70% of the world’s specialty chocolate comes from Ecuador. Cacao, like wine, takes on the terroir, or the flavors of the regions it is grown in. Some of the most complex, well balanced cacaos are coming from Ecuador. Recently Ecuador has been producing its own chocolate instead of just exporting the beans.
I decided to try my hand at making something out of these roasted beans that were given to me. The first step was to try making the original xocolatl drink that Mayans and Aztecs drank. I boiled hot peppers in water and strained them out, then added ground up cacao beans and cinnamon bark. I let this boil for about 15 minutes and poured the hot mixture into a mug. It smelled good but it was very bitter and too chunky; I probably didn’t grind it finely enough. After sampling the original recipe I added some milk and honey. It made the drink more palatable but still needed to be smoother.
From preparing the oldest known recipe, I jumped to the opposite end of the spectrum. The newest hipster fad is cold brewed single source cacao nibs. Like cold brew coffee, you take the ground up beans and let them steep in cold water for at least 24 hours for the grounds to slowly
release their oils and flavor. I decided to take it a step further and make a mixture of both cold brewed cacao and cold brew coffee- a sort of mocha without the milk. After 24 hours the cacao was still very light colored and didn’t have much of an aroma so I let it sit for another 12 hours. Big mistake. In those 36 hours the cacao had time to start fermenting. The finished product was a funky, fruity, bitter concoction. I mixed it with the cold brewed coffee and it was interesting but still not worth making. ( Cold brewed coffee and cacao nibs picture right). I went back and did a 24 hour cold brew with the cacao and the results were better. As long as you don’t think of it as chocolate it is something I could imagine drinking on a regular basis. Its adds interesting layers when mixed with iced coffee and still delivers the mood lifting chemicals naturally found in cacao.
Cacao is a rather diverse product. From the fruit to the bitter roasted seeds to milk chocolate bars. What was once an exotic plant reserved for the wealthy is now a an everyday indulgence. What is the most unique chocolate product you have tried?