It is a rare child who does not love chocolate and most of us carry that love affair into adulthood to some degree. Our tastes may become more refined as we age, but the love affair continues. As a child we’re really talking about milk chocolate. The dark stuff comes later. As a child too, there’s usually some female figure in our lives who baked the most unbelievably moist rich creamy chocolate cake. Cocoa as a comfort bedtime drink is another potent childhood memory.
As a kid growing up in England in the 1950s it was the great Quaker chocolate houses that we remember. The names live on, but they’re all owned now by Kraft in debased form; Cadbury’s, Fry’s, and Roundtree with honourble mention to Terry’s of York and Mackintosh, of Quality Street assorted fame. Dominating it all then and now, was the Cadbury’s milk chocolate bar which was sold throughout the English-speaking world, with the exception of the USA. The sixpenny Cadbury chocolate milk bar was the basic gold standard against everything else, up-market or down, was measured. Here the Quaker values of honesty in business ensured that you got the genuine article at a fair price. We love what we grow up with, I know, but on tasting a Hershey bar for the first time I couldn’t believe that the stuff was chocolate. Bit like the American kid I heard in London back in the 1960’s whose parents had made the mistake of going into a Wimpy Bar. “Mom, this is isn’t a hamburger!” he exploded in justified outrage.
The next stop in my own love of chocolate was Suchard Milka from Switzerland. Apart from the chocolate there was something else I liked I could’t place. I now identify this as condensed milk, used in place of powdered milk. It was a sickeningly sweet whitish treacle sold in cans. It was essentially inedible, but pierce the can so it didn’t explode and boil it for 3 hours and it alchemised into a light brown paste which was supremely delicious. Too much sugar spoils the tast of food but sometimes alchemy does take place and you get … Halva! It was like that.
My chocolate odyssey reached its peak when I discovered Prestat, a chocolatier in South Moulton Street, Mayfair, founded by Frenchman Antoine Dufour, who encouraged by one of Edward VII’s French mistresses, set up shop in 1902 and which produces the best truffles in the world. Not only did they taste magnificent but the packaging was a statement of such elegance that all my giftgiving to any woman I wished to thank or impress, was taken care of for the next two decades. I read the other day that The Economist magazine ran a survey to see who were the top ten chocolatiers in the world. Prestat was number three with the French Maison du Chocolat first and Marcolini of Belgium second.
Authentic is the Real Luxury
We live in an interesting world. In many ways it seems to be going to hell in a basket and yet the reality is things have never been better. What we eat for example. For 80 years Big Food has been on a roll processing and denaturing cheap edible substances whose generic name ends up being its only assocation with nutrition and by shoving synthetic additives, emulsifiers, preservatives ,artificial flavourings, colorings, laced with lashings of salt and refined sugar, all wrapped up in lies – and then marketing the bejasus out of it.
The net effect of all this is that foods which are real and authentic cease to be an affordable staple but become a luxury item. That is, until sufficient numbers of us who spot the scam reach critical mass and are prepared to do something about it. That seems about where we are just coming to now. Call it the Great Artisanal Restoration. If you can’t get a job in a factory because they don’t exist in your locality any more, are not cut out to be a banker, financial spiv or lawyer – why not go back to righteous endeavour making or growing something that is real and authentic for which there is a growing demand?
Chocolate is a perfect example for this; coming from a bean found in South America possessing magical healing and sexual properties, whose origins are lost in the mists of Tolmec and Mayan legend. Brought back to Spain by Columbus it became the favourite court tipple and quickly spread throughout the courts of Europe. By the 17thC it descended from these dizzy heights to the clubs and coffee houses of London and Europe’s other great cities. Soon the cocoa bean itself had spread beyond South America and was being grown in plantations by slaving masses throughout West Africa and the East Indies. By the 1828 Dutchman Conrad Van Houten designed a hydraulic press to extractr cocoa butter and in 1847 in Bristol the Quaker Joseph Fry had produced the first chocolate bar. The rest is history.
Ingredients: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly
In their guide to buyers eBay warns that manufacturers include many different kinds of ingredients in chocolate, some good, and some bad. “All chocolate bars will contain cocoa and sugar, the quantity depending on whether it is sweet, dark or bitter chocolate”, they say.
Cocoa appears under a variety of names. Chocolate liqueur simply means cacao beans ground into a paste, essentially the same as cocoa. Sometimes listed as cocoa powder and cocoa butter. The ingredient to avoid is ‘Dutch process cocoa’. Cheap low-quality cacao beans have a sour taste that is neutralized by ‘dutching’, i.e. mixing cocoa powder with alkali.
While there are no alternatives to cocoa, there may be a number of alternatives to sugar. Organic chocolate bars use brown sugar or evaporated cane juice, imparting a smoky, molasses-like flavor. If you are trying to reduce sugar in your chocolate, buy ultra-dark chocolate with cocoa content above 70%. At that percentage, a 2 ounce bar contains less than 17 grams of sugar. Most good chocolate includes vanilla which enhances the chocolate flavour. Natural vanilla has a cheap artificial substitute however, vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde), which gives a chemical taste to chocolate. The final ingredient you find in chocolate is lecithin or soy lecithin, an emulsifier. This keeps the cocoa butter from separating from the cocoa solids and sugar in chocolate. It is a common ingredient and many fine chocolates include it with no problems.
Milk chocolate uses milk powder for two reasons. It not only gives chocolate the creamy texture which is popular, but significantly also acts as a filler, replacing more expensive cocoa butter to make the more go farther.
With chocolate and truffles, the ingredients to avoid are hydrogenated vegetable oils and tropical oils (like coconut oil). Traditional truffles are made with unsalted butter and always taste better than those made with hardened vegetable oils. Chocolates with fruit fillings have a shorter shelf life and are loaded with preservatives. You can’t avoid preservatives unless you go to a live chocolatier whom you know makes their chocolates fresh every day.
Plain chocolate bars need no preservatives, with a long shelf life of over a year. The only reason to have preservatives in chocolate can only be to extend its shelf life in the store, for as we know chocolate does not last long in the home.
Armed with this information it is an interesting exercise venturing out into the market place to compare prices and small print on the European and US labels with the local artisanal offerings and the local supermarket brands. I call it “Spot the Weasel”.
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