The other week, I went to a chocolate class at the Brooklyn Brainery, taught by Andrea Booth. What follows are some of the key chocolate facts that I learned, though frankly I'm only going to be able to hit some of the high points here, as the class was an hour and a half long, and there was an awesome powerpoint and everything. If you live in NYC and Andrea offers the class again, you should go.
Anyway, Chocolate education, coming up:
- 75% of the world's chocolate comes from Africa, yet Africa comprises only 3% of the world's chocolate consumption. There's an equatorial line called "the Chocolate Belt," which is the region of the world where cacao trees can grow. Hawaii is the only place in the U.S. that lies inside the Cacao Belt.
- There are three varieties of cacao: 1) criollo, the original cacao plant, from the Amazon basin, which is the "purest" cocoa. 2) forastero, mostly found in Africa, which is heartier than criollo but less complex in flavor. 3) trinitario, which is a neatural hybrid between the criollo and forestero and represents 75% of world chocolate production.
- For a long time, chocolate was a beverage only. In Mayan culture, everyone could drink cacao, regardless of their social class. The Aztecs lived further north, therefore they could not grow their own chocolate, and therefore only the wealthy had access to cacao. The first chocolate bar was manufactured by Fry's Chocolate in 1847 -- previously, all chocolate had been in beverage form.
- The Catholic church formally declared that chocolate was not a sin, and that Catholics were allowed to drink it while fasting.
- Raw cacao has twenty times the antioxidant levels of red wine. i.e. it's a health food, duh.
- Askonsie runs a program called Cocoa Honors, which sent a group of teens to Tanzania to work with cacao farmers there. Seriously. How much would I have wanted to do that when I was in high school? Or right now? I would do that right now.
We also tasted an Aztec cacao drink called xocoatl, which Andrea had made. Xocoatl is made of chilli-water, cacao powder, and vanilla. It smelled good, like chocolate and vanilla. Doesn't sound that bad, right? But it tasted like spicy water. Not like chocolate. Drinking it was an interesting experience. But I would not advice whipping up a batch for your next party.
And we did a taste-test of eight bars. Look at them! We got to eat as much of each bar as we wanted!
My favorite, and the overall winner of our class's taste test, was the Pralus Sao Tome and Principe 75% bar. Andrea cleverly hid a Hershey's bar in the taste test, and that wound up getting voted third place out of eight. People were pretty chagrinned when they realized they'd voted for Hershey's over the fancy Pralus and Mast Brothers bars that were also on the table. My notes on the Hershey's bar say, quote, "Kind of weird," which is ironic and I guess goes to show that packaging is everything. Or at least it is many things.
Andrea also recommended some of her favorite chocolate producers, which I'll list for you here because she is obviously an expert, and we should all try whatever she recommends (except for the Xocoatl!):
- Pascal Caffet
- Francois Pralus
- Michel Chaudun
- Patrick Roger
- Jacques Torres
BOTTOM LINE: We can all always learn more about chocolate. And then eat more of it. Obviously.