Just like my mother, I am a firm believer that some things just should not be skimped on when it comes to food. For me, one of those things is chocolate. Since this week is National Chocolate Week in Great Britain, I’m sending chocolate-love out to all my British friends and anybody else who wants to come along for the ride.
I am passionate about my chocolate—sometimes, I am an outright chocolate snob. I make no apologies. I’m an educated consumer and choose to take-in my chocolate calories wisely. Through the years of writing about chocolate, I’ve learned some basic background and tips about chocolate that I thought I’d pass on to you.
How and Where it Grows
Cacao beans grow in tropical environments—Central America and the West Coast of Africa—so for most of us, buying locally grown isn’t an option. There are three kinds of cacao beans from which chocolate is made—Criolla, Forastero, and Trinitario. Think of these variations as you would in those in apples or tomatoes. You have your “Granny Smith” apples like you have you “Big Boy” tomatoes. Pick up a quality chocolate bar and often you will see one of those beans listed on the label.
How Chocolate is Made
The cacao bean is ground into nibs, which are separated into chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. The pure form of chocolate liquor is what comprises baking chocolate. This dark liquor can be further processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
But for the creation of chocolates—from bitter to semisweet—more cocoa butter plus sugar, vanilla (or vanillin) and some lecithin (wax) are added. While one manufacturer’s bittersweet may be another’s semisweet, both contain at least 35 percent chocolate liquor by weight—that’s the law in the United States.
Three Types of Basic Chocolate:
Sweet chocolate is made up of at least 15 percent chocolate liquor and sweeteners in addition to sugar.
Milk chocolate contains milk, usually in powder form, and at least 10 percent chocolate liquor.
White chocolate is the butter formed from the liquor of the chocolate. Many European chocolatiers use real cocoa butter in their white chocolate. But often what’s labeled as “white chocolate” is a compound based on vegetable fat rather than the luscious, melt-in-your-mouth cocoa butter. If white chocolate doesn’t contain cocoa butter, it’s not really white chocolate.
Watch out for words like “chocolatey” or “chocolate-flavored” on descriptive labels of any kind of chocolate bars. It’s a vegetable-oil based product that actually contains little if any chocolate, let alone cocoa butter.
Good Chocolate is Worth the Money
It’s best to buy chocolate directly from a small batch chocolate shop for the ultimate chocolate experience. Yes, the cost of hand-crafted chocolates is more than most drugstore chocolate, but it’s worth the price when considering the time and quality of ingredients involved. But fresh chocolate doesn’t last as long, so remember to check the “best by” dates.
Not only is fresh chocolate better tasting, in my humble opinion, but also you can see your chocolate-maker face to face and ask him or her about their stance on fair trade issues. Many unscrupulous plantations have extremely poor working conditions in which children are used, illegally—for the backbreaking work of picking cacao beans, all the while being exposed, perhaps to chemical fertilizers and insecticides. All of this for very little compensation—which is one reason why cheap chocolate bars are so cheap.
So you can call me a chocolate snob and that’s okay. I enjoy the decadent rich flavor of chocolate (the darker, the better), which is enhanced by the freshness of the small batch variety and I feel good about the money I spend knowing it’s supporting a local artisan and fair trade plantations.