Once upon a time in the dense jungles and forests of Central America, early inhabitants discovered the cocoa pod. It became more precious than gold to those early native peoples. With amazing ingenuity, they developed a method for extracting the beans, roasting them, and then brewing the ebony gems into a drink enjoyed only by high-ranking members of their society. One can only wonder what the kings of ancient Mayan civilizations would think if they knew the impact that cocoa’s evolution would have on mankind across time.
On February 12, the Marion Council on Aging hosted Victoria Kichuk, a guest speaker from Cocoa Beantown, a Boston-based chocolate tour company. Kichuk took the assembled on a journey of chocolate tasting. Woven throughout her talk, Kichuk enlightened the group on everything from where the plants are grown to the latest in chocolate innovations.
The cocoa tree grows mostly in a 20-degree band north and south of the Equator. While cocoa is primarily known as a product originating in the Americas, today Africa produces 40 percent of all commercially traded product, Kichuk said.
Given the small geographic areas in which the plants thrive, Kichuk expressed the importance of a healthy environment for plant production. Such increasing concerns as global warming, disease, and fire could profoundly and negatively affect future production.
Kichuk explained that the pods grow from the trunk of the cocoa tree, giving the plant an otherworldly appearance. She also said that it takes 10 years for trees to mature sufficiently for the production of flowers leading to pods and the much sought after beans inside. In spite of these considerations, she said, “It’s amazing that we can get chocolate whenever we want.”
Kichuk passed around four different types of chocolate samples as she discussed “mouth feel,” “fragrance,” “flavor notes,” and pairings. As the participants sampled such succulent flavors as white chocolate from Belgium, Blond Dulcey and milk chocolate from France, and dark chocolate from Madagascar, Kichuk asked people to notice the differences in taste, textures, and overall enjoyment.
When considering what sort of chocolate to purchase, especially during what she called “chocolate holidays” such as Valentine’s Day and Easter, Kichuk said, “You get what you pay for.” She cautioned that if chocolates taste waxy, it was because they contained edible paraffin. She said the best chocolates would be those produced outside the U.S. or from small batch chocolatiers.
As the gathered tasted the samples, the sounds of pleasure in the forms of “mmm” and “ah” echoed around the room. And by the way, Kichuk corrected a common misnomer that white chocolate isn’t really chocolate. Good quality white chocolate is made from cocoa butter with a bit of vanilla and sugar added.
It’s also interesting to note that cocoa beans have become a multi-million dollar industry and part of a fair trade process designed to ensure that farms remain sustainable and that farmers receive compensation that provides a living wage. And here’s a sweet statistic: from 2015 through 2016, 7.3 million tons of retail chocolate confections were consumed.
Want to know who eats the most chocolate? You may be surprised to learn that the U.S. is not even one of the top eight countries for chocolate chowing. Coming in at Number 8 was Sweden, topped by Estonia, Norway, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria, Germany, and at Numero Uno – Switzerland. The Swiss eat a whooping 18 pounds of chocolate per person per year. Now that’s a sweet tooth!
By Marilou Newell