The history of chocolate - Deanna Pucciarelli
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Etymologists trace the origin of the word "chocolate" to the Aztec word "xocoatl," which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. The late Sophie Coe and her husband Michael Coe posit in their book the True History of Chocolate that the earliest linguistic evidence of chocolate consumption stretches back three thousand years, to pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica such as the Olmec. Why would a very bitter substance, cacao beans, encased in a shell be chosen as the consumable while the white, sweet pulp surrounding the cocoa beans not be eaten as a fruit nectar, or fermented into an alcoholic beverage? Perhaps both occurred at the same time, but we do not have evidence to suggest that the pulp was desired above the cacao beans; whereas, pottery remains, codices and other writings record the long use of cacao bean consumption.
Today farmers and scientists understand how crucial the pulp’s role is to fermenting cacao beans. In fact, without the contact of the cacao beans to the pulp mixture while held at a steady temperature you end up with an inferior tasting chocolate product. There are at least 12 steps in the processing of cacao beans: (1) harvest the pods; (2) ferment the beans; (3) dry the beans in the sun and rake so that they do not get sunburn; (4) sort according to size; (5) Roast; (6) Winnow (crack outer shell covering and discard); (7) Grind nibs into a paste; (8) Press cocoa mass to separate butter from chocolate liquor; (9) Add ingredients (sugar, milk- for milk chocolate); (10) Conch (refine the particle size to 10-15 microns); Temper (changes sugar crystals’ chemical structure); (11) Mold; and (12) package for distribution. Chocolate is a highly processed food. Learn more at this link: The Science of Chocolate.
Chocolate production comes with environmental and societal concerns. Most of the world’s cacao pre-manufacturing production (steps 1-4 above) takes place in West Africa. Within the top producing countries, Ivory Coast and Ghana, there are high rates of poverty and low levels of education. Many families living in poverty resort to hiring out their children to the cacao plantations at harvest times. Some children are enlisted to work the plantations without consent. There are two harvests per year, and both take place during the school year. Leaders from cacao producing regions acknowledge this problem and are working to eliminate the worst abuses. This Smithsonian Magazine article, The Economics of Chocolate, has more information.
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