Chocolate is a Ferment
Yup, that’s right people. I said it. Without fermentation there would be no Valentine’s Day. There would be no fantastic kid memories of snowmen and freezing fingers warmed by a steaming, hot cup of tasty. There would be no churros y chocolate and no aphrodisiac-chocolate tittering in your early teens. I don’t think it’s going too far to say there would be no romance, no love, no desire, no pleasure. Because chocolate is good. If you are one of the aberrant people who don’t like chocolate, I’m sorry that you’re so wrong or I’m sorry for whatever horrible thing happened to you during childhood.
I was in New York this week for work, and I had the chance to drag a colleague and friend to accompany me down to foodie mecca (aka Brooklyn) for a little super expensive chocolate beauty. I’m not arguing with Mast Bros. While much of the world’s chocolate is produced in way that is detrimental to the people responsible for harvest and cultivation, Mast Bros pay farmers a fair price, well above market rates. They also make their beans into bars in Brooklyn (a super cheap spot, right?!) and get local artists to design their stunningly beautiful packaging. So while you might not want to pay $12 for a bar of chocolate, you can kind of understand why their bars sometimes cost $12 a piece. I picked up a bag of nibs for baking and a limited edition bar of black truffle chocolate. The truffle chocolate took some getting used to, I won’t lie. I ate 3 squares over the course of the day, and I definitely liked them better as the day wore on. I could easily see using this bar for a savory dish, but more likely it will serve as a conversation starter the next time friends stop over and want a bite of something.
So chocolate fermenation: there are a variety of organisms involved in giving chocolate its delicious color and flavor. When the large, fake-looking pods of the Theobroma cacao tree, which incidentally, means “food of the gods,” (Right you are, latin name!) are harvested, they are cracked open to reveal seeds covered in a pectiny pulp, which is the substance eventually liquified by fermentation. The pulpy seeds are put into wooden boxes and covered with banana leaves, where they will be turned occasionally to release heat (any composters out there?) and otherwise left for several days to do their thing. Fermentation kills the seeds and also contributes the complex flavors that we know and love in chocolate. As with many types of fermentation, there are multiple types of fermenation occuring over the course of the process. I’ve discussed this type of situation in my fermentation classes quite a bit. Alcoholic, acetic and lactic fermentation are all needed to get the end product that we know and love. There are also assorted molds and fungi involved, so it is important to manage those and fermentation time, since both can negatively impact the taste of the chocolate if they go awry.
Fermentation occurs, by necessity, near the source of the harvest, so there is no fermentation occurring at Mast Bros, or anywhere in the US as far as I know, but I did get to handle some awesome, prehistoric-looking, fresh pods while we were in the rainforest last year. Unfortunately the area I was in was known for pickpocketing and torrential rains, so my camera was safely elsewhere and you’re stuck with finished bar photos from Brooklyn.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Enjoy your traditional Valentine’s ferment!
A note: I did a chocolate presentation for my job a LONG time ago and much of what you read above is knowledge I acquired putting together that presentation. Nothing comes directly from it. The only specific source I can remember (though there were many, many more) is a book I have on my bookshelf called Chocolate, Cooking With the World’s Best Ingredient by Christine McFadden and Christine France.
Additionally, I googled for a refresher and found this site which clearly explains the awesome microbial science of chocolate fermentation.