Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A Chocolate Life.

I spent last evening at a tasting session arranged for food bloggers by Brisbane providor Black Pearl Epicure. We began with tastings of various olive oils, vinegars (including a 20 year old Balsamic), and several salts. We went on to chocolate and other things, and ended with the best Roquefort cheese I have ever eaten. Dinner was somewhere in there too.

Needless to say, it was such a fine evening (following upon a busy day) that I belatedly realised that, once again, I have not polished the intended story for the day. So, once again, I give you a tweaked version of a previous article, written for a bakery magazine.

Life without chocolate is barely imaginable for most of us, but that was the unhappy position of Europeans before they discovered the New World at the end of the fifteenth century. Once they had found it however, they certainly added value to the product over the next few centuries, for the chocolate that the ancient peoples of Central and South America had been consuming for millennia was nothing like the chocolate we enjoy today.

The first Europeans to see cacao beans were Christopher Columbus and some of his crew in 1502. They had no idea what a culinary treasure they dismissed as a boatload of some sort of primitive native “money” - although they were partially correct as the beans were indeed used as currency at that time. A subsequent explorer, Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, recorded their purchasing power in 1513: for example - four beans would buy a rabbit, eight to ten the services of a prostitute, and one hundred would get you a slave.

The beans were also, of course, made into a drink- but quite a different one from hot chocolate as we know it now. It was a bitter, unsweetened beverage flavoured with all sorts of different spices – chilli, black pepper, vanilla, achiote etc - and whipped with a wooden tool, or poured from a great height to make it frothy. It was a luxury drink for the elite, and a strength-giving potion for warriors - but again, the early explorers initially viewed it as a curiosity, and were quite unimpressed with it themselves as a drink – one soldier saying “Chocoatl [sic] is fit to be thrown to the pigs”.

Eventually the value of the beans was gradually realised by the Spanish, who took it home with them. One day, an unknown someone in Spain had the brilliant idea of adding sugar to it, and chocolate never looked back. Nevertheless, it was still a hundred years before it became well known and loved in the rest of Europe, and a couple of hundred more before it evolved into a piece of solid confectionary.

Chocolate – as a sweet drink – was, like many newly introduced “foreign” foods, at first viewed with varying degrees of scepticism, suspicion, or enthusiasm. The French initially considered it “a barbarous product and noxious drug”, but it quickly became fashionable when it got royal approval, and Samuel Pepys was drinking it fairly regularly for his hangovers in the flourishing chocolate shops of London in the 1660’s.

The medicinal value of every foodstuff was an accepted tenet of the time, and although physicians did not always agree on the exact properties of the chocolate drink, it was generally thought to be somewhat of an aphrodisiac. It was also a bonus that it helped make people fat, for fat was equated with health in a society where thin meant starvation or sickness.

The confection made of Cacao called Chocolate or Chocoletto which may be had in diverse places in London, at reasonable rates, is of wonderful efficacy for the procreation of children, for it not only vehemently incites to Venus, but causes conception in women . . . and besides that it preserves health, for it makes such as take it often to become fat and corpulent, fair and amiable. [William Coles, 1657].

At the end of the seventeenth century Sir Hans Sloane, whose bequest gave us the British Museum, is credited with adding milk to chocolate to improve its value as an invalid food. It was still a drink however, not a solid, and required some heavy work pounding either the actual beans or pre-prepared “cake” in a mortar. There were two more steps needed before chocolate bars could happen. In 1828, Conrad van Houten devised a process we now call “dutching” – removing about half the fat from the beans, and treating the residue with alkali, resulting in a cocoa powder which mixed easily with water. Then, in 1847, Joseph Fry in England found a way of mixing some of the fat back into the “dutched” cocoa, adding sugar, and pressing the paste into moulds. It seems that the initial aim was still to produce an easier base for making chocolate drinks, but it was quickly discovered that the bars were very pleasant indeed to eat as they were. The final refinements came in the 1870’s with the development of milk chocolate, and then the “conching” process which produces the ultra-smooth texture and mouth-feel that is so much part of chocolate’s appeal.

Now, chocolate is cheap and easily available, and we can afford to use it in many dishes, but this is a relatively new development in culinary history. A couple of the earliest recipes (perhaps the earliest) using it as an ingredient are in the extensive sweet and confectionary section of The Court and Country Cook, by a French celebrity chef called Francois Massialot, first published in 1691. One is for a chocolate custard, and the other - most interestingly - is for a duck dish!

Chocolate Cream.
Take a Quart of Milk with a quarter of a Pound of Sugar, and boil them together for a quarter of an Hour: Then put one beaten Yolk of an Egg into the Cream, and let it have three or four Walms*: Take it off from the Fire, and mix it with some Chocolate, till the Cream has assum’d its colour. Afterwards you may give it three or four Walms more upon the Fire, and having strain’d it through a Sieve, dress it at pleasure.

*A ‘walm’ is a brief boiling-up.

In the following recipe from 1710 for what sounds like chocolate meringues, the chocolate would have been in the form of the compressed cake of pounded beans.

Having scrap’d a little Chocolate upon the White of an Egg, to give it a Tincture, work it up with Powder-Sugar, and the rest of the Ingredients, to a pliable Paste: Then dress your Biskets upon Sheets of Paper, and set them in the Campagne-Oven, to be bak’d with a gentle Fire, both on the top and underneath.

By the time Mary Abel’s book Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking Adapted to Persons of Moderate and Small Means was published in New York in 1890, the chocolate in the recipe would probably still have been a solid cake of ground cocoa-nibs, not expensive eating chocolate. But what a fantastic idea it is for an interesting dessert!

Chocolate Soup.
¼ lb. chocolate, 2 ½ qts milk and water, sugar to taste, 1 egg yolk, a little vanilla or cinnamon.
Cook the chocolate soft in a little water, and add the rest; when boiling put in the other ingredients, and cook the beaten white of an egg in spoonfuls on the top. Serve with fried bread.

Quotation for the Day.

Chocolate is a perfect food, as wholesome as it is delicious, a beneficent restorer of exhausted power. It is the best friend of those engaged in literary pursuits.
Baron Justus von Liebig

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