Let me start by saying I LOVE CHOCOLATE. Sure, I like sweet stuff in general, but when it comes to dessert, I will always choose something chocolate. I eat chocolate almost everyday. So I am a bit embarrassed to admit how little I knew about it. OK, I knew that chocolate comes from the seed of the cacao fruit, but that’s about it. Until now.
Although my knowledge of chocolate in no way equals my love of it, thanks to an amazing chocolate workshop at Chaqchao Chocolates in Arequipa, I now understand how it is made, where it comes from, its history and why you should always splurge on that artisan bar rather than reach for a Hershey’s.
Here are some fun facts we learned as well as some photos from the class.
Fun Fact #1: The cacao tree is native to Central and South America. Although big name brands (think Nestle, Hershey’s, etc) now grow the majority of their cacao in Ghana and the Ivory Coast (which produce 80% of the world’s cacao), it originated in the Americas.
Fun Fact #2: Chocolate was invented over 3,000 years ago by the Aztecs in Mexico. The Aztecs only drank chocolate; they never refined it into a bar. The chocolate drink, which was made from cacao, chili, honey and a woman’s blood (yes, you read that right), took 12 -14 hours to produce. Montezuma (the leader of the Aztecs) was apparently addicted to this chocolate drink and would drink 40 goblets of it everyday.
Fun Fact #3: Peru is the second largest producer of organic cacao in the world.
Fun Fact #4: Cacao fruit oxidizes (hardens into an unusable pod) in just 3-6 days, making it incredibly difficult to produce and ship in necessary quantities to quench the world’s appetite for chocolate. Thus, farmer cooperatives have developed in South America that grow, harvest and ferment the beans in order to stablize them for shipment and further processing.
Fun Fact #5: Making chocolate involves 8 primary steps. First, the cacao fruit is harvested and the seeds are removed. The seeds are then fermented for 3-6 days, during which time they are covered with banana leaves, which have a natural bacteria that aids the fermentation process. The beans are then sundried for 10-14 days and transported to chocolate processing facilities, like Chaqchao. Dried beans can last up to 3 years. Once the beans arrive at their destination, they are sorted (handsorting is still done in some places) and roasted. The shells are then removed and the result is the cocoa nib. The nibs are then ground into a paste. Chaqchao adds sugar and additional cocoa butter to create massive bars that are then aged for 2-6 months. Once aged, the chocolate is tempered by heating it to 45 degrees Celsius, then cooling it to 25 degrees before bringing it up to a final temperature of 28 degrees. The tempering process gives the choclate a nice shiny color. Finally it is melted and placed in a mold and cooled to create the desired final shape.
Fun Fact #6: A well fermented cacao seed is chubby and looks like a brain. A bad seed is flat.
Fun Fact #7: Each cacao seed contains some percentage of cocoa butter. The best chocolate is high in cocoa butter (around 45%). Cocoa butter is what gives chocolate its luscious aroma. Large-scale producers typically remove most of the cocoa butter, which is sold to the cosmetics industry, leaving just 5-15% in the bar. They then add other oils, such as seseme or palm oil. Palm oil plantations are the leading cause of tropical forest destruction globally.
Fun Fact #8: Cortez was the first gringo to encounter chocolate (with the Aztecs in Mexico). He exported cacao to Europe where the first chocolate bar was developed.
Fun Fact #9: There are three varieties of cacao beans: Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario. Criollo is prized for its complex flavor but makes up only 1% of the world’s production. Forastero is also known as “the traveler” because it makes up over 80% of the world’s production and is shipped long distances. Trinitario is a cross between the other two and comprises about 5% of the world’s production.
Fun Fact #10: We got to make 12 chocolates as part of the workshop!