Most of us will admit to a fondness for chocolate – whether as an occasional treat or a daily indulgence. But how much do we really know about our beloved sweet stuff?
While most of us might think of chocolate in a bar, for hundreds of years it was consumed solely as a drink and didn’t contain many of the ingredients we now associate with the chocolate we consume today. The word chocolate is traced back to the ancient Aztecs, who made a drink brewed from cacao beans called ‘Xocoatl’. Far from being a sweet treat, the drink was very bitter in taste and would be unlikely to appeal to our modern palettes.
The Mayans and Aztecs both believed cacao had magical properties. The sweetened form of chocolate began to develop following European discovery of the Americas and became fashionable in the 17th century. Rich Europeans believed avidly in its nutritious and aphrodisiac properties.
Solid chocolate started life as an experiment in Holland in 1828, combining cacao butter with liquid chocolate. The solid chocolate bar was created by Joseph Fry in 1847, and Cadbury began creating chocolate bars very similar to the ones we buy today, in 1868 - hard to believe little has changed in 150 years...
Historians estimate the practice of drinking chocolate originated around 2000 years ago, though recent research has suggested that perhaps chocolate has been around even longer! Chocolate has undergone many developments since then, and it's used, and purpose continues to shift today. Chocolate is now part of many fine foods, in keeping with the growth of a newfound love of high-quality, gourmet chocolate with a premium finish.
The cocoa bean is notoriously bitter, which makes it unpalatable to most tastes. Chocolate goes through quite a process before it reaches us. Cocoa beans from the cocoa tree are roasted and fermented, before being steamed, crushed and ground to a liquid known as cocoa liquor. This liquor is then milled further still to create the smooth texture which is so familiar. During this process, cocoa powder and cocoa butter are revealed – and then stirred together again. It is now that things get exciting, and this mixture is ready to be adapted to suit its purpose. It can be made into a chocolate bar, poured over confectionary, or used in the production of recipes which need a special chocolate hit.
Types of chocolate are defined by the quantity of cocoa and milk used in the recipe. This is where we begin to differentiate between milk, dark and white chocolate.
In recent years, there has been an explosion of connoisseur forms of chocolate, including raw chocolate, organic chocolate and couverture chocolate, rich in cocoa butter and valued for its strong cocoa taste and gourmet associations.
Keeping chocolate at it’s freshest requires a certain amount of effort, but it’s worth it for the superior taste and quality you gain. Be careful to avoid refrigerating your chocolate, as there is really no need. The humidity of your fridge could reduce its shelf life, so it’s best to simply opt for an air-tight container away from light. Chocolate tends to be porous, so if you want it to keep its original taste and aroma, avoid positioning next to items with a strong smell.
Chocolate is a wonderful ingredient to bake a cake with, offering seemingly endless opportunities to cook up a storm. Whether you’re making a loved one their favourite treat as a chocolate gift, treating someone special on Valentine’s Day or simply feel like indulging in your favourite treat, these top tips will help you get it right:
How do you make sure you’re buying high-quality chocolate? In part, it depends on what it is you’re looking for from a taste perspective. Perhaps you favour the richness of dark chocolate, the softer taste of milk chocolate, or the sweetness of white chocolate? However, there are other things to look out for when finding the perfect chocolate for you. If searching for chocolate gifting ideas or the perfect chocolate gift for Valentines Day, these tips will ensure you impress!
What to look out for when shopping for the best chocolates:
If you're lucky enough to get a lovely box of chocolates as a gift this Christmas or Valentines (and you actually manage to hide it from the rest of your family!) - you now hopefully know a little more about what makes a nice tasting chocolate, a great one! And so the wonderful world of fine chocolate awaits... one thing is certain, that cheap supermarket 'chocolate' bar will never taste the same again...
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Seán Farrell – Founder, Chateau Rouge