Easter chocolate has never tasted like this
From luxury beverage to an indulgent treat
By Robyn Lewis
Chocolate – the spicy but bitter Mayan 'drink of the Gods' – was first brought to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century, and soon became a favoured drink.
Europeans added sugar and milk to counteract the Cacao beans' natural bitterness and acidity, and flavoured it with vanilla (a native of Madagascar) rather than the South American native chilli used by the Aztecs.
From this culinary melting pot chocolate quickly became a sought-after luxury beverage of the nobility.
The tropical-loving Cacao seeds were also imported, and plantations were developed in West Africa using the then new slave labour, providing more reliable supply. Like coffee today, demand for chocolate took off – the first chocolate house (precursor to the cafe) opened in London in 1657, and thirty years later Sir Hans Sloane developed the basis of his personal fortune and the formula for powdered cocoa that was later sold to the Cadbury brothers.
Skip forward 100 years to the industrial revolution, whose machines enabled cocoa butter to be sqeezed out and processed into solid chocolate that we know today. Chocolate became more of a food. Born in Turin, it further developed in Switzerland and Holland, resulting in the first milk chocolate bars appearing in 1875. Family producers from this era - Nestle, Lindt, Cadbury, Fry , van Houten - are still household names in the world of chocolate today.
The Spanish were quick to reclaim the legacy of their first imports – in 1872 a chocolate firm was established in the town of Vic, near Barcelona; the company now bears the name Chocovic. It specialises in the manufacture of premium chocolate for professional culinary use – patisserie, bon bons, ice-creams and of course in restaurants and catering. In 1995 it established the first Spanish catering school, Aula Chocovic, specialising in chocolate, becoming a prestige centre for chocolate training.
Training? For those of us who just eat the stuff, the amount of knowledge that exists about making and using chocolate might come as a surprise. Cheap chocolate has become almost a commodity and has gone from treat status to the scourge of Western parents. But as anyone who has bought a $2 Easter egg knows, not all chocolate is the same.
The 2009 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival saw the first visit of Aula Chocovic's head chef Ramon Morato to Australia. From the 'chocolate playground' on Wicked Sunday, demonstrating dessert preparation and more at various restaurants around Melbourne, to the masterclass 'Chocolate is the new pastry', Morato and other award-winning pastry chefs showcased chocolate in forms that mere mortals may only dream about creating – although expect to be seeing more on restaurant menus soon.
Dishes ranges from the seemingly attainable – white chocolate sacher sponge with pear, ginger and mint; balsamic nut crumble with forest fruits – to the novel: chocolate hamburger; lychees elder and cacao pulp; white chocolate gianduja with pinenuts and cinnamon. As with wine there is now more emphasis on single region and even single estate chocolate, rather than blends, driven by increased consumer sophistication as well as a desire to explore new flavours and combinations.
The 'Origen Unico' range produced by Chocovic enables tasters to discover the unique qualities of various types of cacao from around the world, from different tree varieties, and – as with wine vintages – even from year to year; the harvest year is given on the packaging. There is a traditional range, but the one that caught my eye was the 'Selvaticas', partly because the packets are adorned with evocative jungle scenes like those of one of my favourite naif artists, Henri Rousseau.
The Spanish word Selvatica refers to the lush tropical rain forests which have inpired the creation of this range. There is the 31% cacao 'Jaina' – the best white chocolate I have tried, and I've tried a few as my husband is allergic to caffeine and can't eat much of the brown variety.
Jaina tastes subtly of vanilla and yoghurt, and is not fatty, sweet or cloying on the palate, unlike those that taste more of condensed milk. 'Nayarit' is 37% cacao and a light, milky brown – my husband certainly tried this too, and given how little was left in the packet, enjoyed it as much as our five-year-old daughter would have done if he hadn't scoffed nearly all of it. It is smooth, soft and milky, with some acidity to counteract any sweetness, and a rich, creamy mouthfeel.
From here we depart from most previous chocolate experiences, mine anyway. 'Kendari' is dark at 60% cacao, and 'Tarakan' more so at 75%. Both are descibed as having an 'aroma of fine cacao with a hint of acidic fruit, moss and moist plants', and certainly I agree for the Tarakan. I've never really thought about chocolate quite like this before. On the palate the taste of Tarakan is descibed as strong and smooth (agree) 'with early notes of acidity blowing off to reveal hints of plants, mushrooms, liquorice and wood'. I can't pick up the fungi or liquorice but tobacco yes, and wood maybe... (I don't eat much wood; I get this more on the nose).
Kendari's taste is described as 'fine cacao with just enough sugar, fresh opening with a touch of acidity, turning into soft liquorice and woody plant flavours'. Clearly there's a whole world of chocolate tasting out there that I've been missing. Taste-wise Kendari is my favourite but on the nose the Tarakan is ahead – they're right, it does smell deliciously of rainforest. And luckily I've got the rest of these two packets to myself, as my daughter hasn't quite cottoned onto dark chocolate – yet. But Tarakan would be great in cooking, and even a humble chocolate mousse would be food for the gods made with this.
I'd certainly like to taste these chocolates in the hands of a master like Morato.
Clearly, chocolate is on the move. Consumers are also driving the trend towards more environmentally and socially acceptable chocolate production – all Chocovic products are GMO free and there is an increasing emphasis on 'fair trade' chocolate – meaning that all people involved in its production, including those involved in the cultivation and harvest of the cacao beans, receive a fair wage.
Easter eggs will not taste the same after this. Now I'm looking forward to the next step – matching wines to chocolates....
- Spain - all (SP)
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