General musings / Published articles

Have we bastardised chocolate?

So after a few months of rest due to server issues, LUNA Digital has had a major makeover, coming back all slick and shiny as XXIV Magazine. I’m proud to say I’m still part of the staff, covering pop culture news and features every week.

This is my first effort for the pretty new format, penned in honour of last week’s International Chocolate Day. Tuck in!

It’s arguably the world’s favourite treat; every day dark, milk and white varieties are shaped into blocks, bars and chips, coat bikkies and cakes, and are used to dull the pain of break-ups.

But have we departed so much from original form of chocolate that our tastebuds don’t even know the good stuff anymore?

There’s a bit of disagreement when it comes to narrowing down a definitive Chocolate Day, with some saying that World Chocolate Day has already passed (why did nobody tell me?), falling on July 7 this year. However the American National Confectioner’s Association says that International Chocolate Day is September 13 – and considering the US account for over 20 per cent of the world’s total consumption of the sweet stuff, let’s take their word for it.

This international influence may be partly the reason why we now primarily associate the word ‘chocolate’ with sweet flavours, with corporations such as Mars dominating the market and dictating our tastes and spending.

Despite its relatively recent introduction to a global market, the ‘food of the gods’ has been used for over 3000 years, originally produced by Olmec and Aztec civilisations in South America and consumed as a warm, bitter drink called xocoatl. As well as the original product, we’ve even bastardised the name.

Now, more often than not, the term ‘chocolate’ is applied to cheaper replicates with more sugar than actual cacao.

pod-on-beans

It was also used as currency before being discovered by invading Europeans and taken back to the homeland, where it was sweetened with sugar or honey to suit European taste. For several decades it was an indulgent drink only for the rich, but in the 17th century availability soared. In the 1847, the first solid chocolate bar was produced, and 20 years later, a little company called Cadbury was formed. So it goes.

Since then, chocolate has transformed into an $83 billion a year industry, according to MarketsandMarkets, lauded for its health benefits, aphrodisiac and endorphin-releasing effects, and still remains our go-to treat.

So have we been doing it wrong?

I’m not talking those awful home brand Easter eggs your teacher used to hand out in primary school – there’s nothing right about those. Commercial brands such as Mars or Cadbury produce primarily ‘confectionary’, derivatives  that are sweetened, beefed up with vegetable fat and over-processed, and that the majority of consumers gobble down with little thought. Interestingly, studies have shown that the increased fat and sugar content in modern chocolate could lead to addiction.

verucaMODNC

Companies like Lindt are more on track, producing super dark, 85-99 per cent cocoa blocks. But the thing is, these just aren’t palatable for most. We’ve been conditioned to choose chocolate with a higher ratio of cocoa butter to cacao (the more cocoa butter, the lighter the chocolate), even though these products are far removed from cacao’s original taste, not to mention far worse for our health. And drinking it in it’s initial form, or using for savoury dishes – don’t even go there.

But the Aztecs were onto something.  You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘chocolate is good for you’ and snickered (no pun intended), but as the cacao bean is one of the most antioxidant-rich products on the planet, when consumed in purer forms this statement has some truth to it.

Willie Harcourt-Cooze, a British chocolate enthusiast, has helped spread the word about ‘real chocolate’.

The series Willie’s Chocolate Revolution followed his quest to create the world’s finest and purest chocolate bar, plus his attempts to encourage chocoholics to put down the Cadbury and tuck into something which allows chocolate’s true flavours to sing.

It seems like we’ve all been underestimating the humble chocolate as an ingredient – Willie also demonstrated the versatility of cacao in a range of both sweet and savoury dishes (and from personal experience, I can attest to the fact that adding a couple of squares of dark choc to chili con carne is next level).

“We are conditioned to think that chocolate is a confectionery, when in actual fact the real thing is the most wondrous, versatile ingredient, whether you use it for savoury or sweet,” he says.

“Just a small amount can strengthen or bring out flavour in food, or simply add depth and richness and body.”

On the show, the entrepreneur learned how to grow, harvest and process his own beans, and even though he nearly drove his family to bankruptcy, he finally launched his 100% Supreme Cacao and Delectable eating chocolate (you can score some at David Jones in Australia if you’re keen).

Fortunately, some producers are taking after Willie and departing from the usual commercial recipe – like Pana Chocolate, a Melbourne company that produces raw, organic and handmade blocks.

They stress that the fundamental reason their chocolate is raw is that processing cacao at high temperatures (as done with most commercial varieties) depletes its nutrient values, and can also cause a build up of acid in the body when consumed. Also produced with fair trade ingredients, to helps combat the poor working conditions and child slavery common in the cacao fields of countries such as the Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Artisanal producers of quality, less processed chocolate are cropping up all over the joint, and while it might be hard to compete with that moreish block of Dairy Milk when it comes to price, your tastebuds and your waistline will thank you for choosing quality produce.

Take a (cocoa) leaf out of the Aztecs’ book and give real chocolate a go.

 

Published at XXIV Magazine (formerly LUNA Digital).

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